welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


The Politics of Education

Judith Suissa considers the intersection of political philosophy and philosophy of education in Alan Bennett’s new film The History Boys.

“Mr Hector’s stuff’s not meant for the exam, sir. It’s to make us more rounded human beings,” proclaims one of the characters in Alan Bennett’s recent play, now film, The History Boys, reflecting the tension that lies at the heart of the play. This tension is ostensibly between two very different approaches to education, personified in two very different types of teacher: Hector, the eccentric, impassioned champion of learning for its own sake, with his rambling General Studies classes; and Irwin, the bright young cynic, recruited to the school to maximize the A level History class’s chances of success in the Oxbridge entrance exams. Hector is uninterested in ‘the system’ and its material rewards, whereas Irwin has a stock of devious tricks intended to beat it by grabbing the attention of the examiners with less-than-orthodox answers to their History essay questions.

But is this just about different educational values? Indeed, is there such thing as ‘educational values’ per se, or are all educational ideas in some sense political? Although Bennett has denied that his play is an attack on New Labour, there is no doubt that a critique of spin and the values associated with the prevailing political culture runs through his script. Yet The History Boys is a deeply political drama in the sense that Irwin and Hector’s collision and the way it is played out in the school illustrates the complex ways in which political values and principles are inextricably intertwined with ideas about education.

Irwin has apparently completely bought into the ideal of the meritocracy. His role as teacher, as he sees it, is to equip the boys to compete as best as they can for the prizes and privileges that come with access to the UK’s elite universities. Indeed, the grammar school where The History Boys is set operates on the conviction that a bright working-class boy like Rudge should be given the opportunity to compete with children from more socially advantaged backgrounds for a place at a top university. Yet what model of the good society is behind this espousal of a meritocratic system? Answering such questions necessitates careful thinking about the meaning and implication of political concepts and values, moral beliefs, and ideas about human nature.

For a start, philosophical probing reveals conceptual problems with the very idea of a meritocracy. We would all hopefully agree that it is unfair for people to gain social and economic privilege because of their skin colour or gender. Why, then, is it acceptable for people to have access to such privileges because they happen to score above a certain level on IQ tests or pass an Oxbridge entrance exam? Meritocracy applied to education is problematic precisely because education in our society is what political philosophers call a ‘positional good’, leading to accumulating socio-economic privilege in an already unequal system. As several political philosophers have pointed out, when there are existing socio-economic inequalities and the principles of the free market operate, equality of opportunity will always to a degree reproduce this socio-economic inequality, irrespective of merit. [If you’re rich, your children are likely to have a better education, making them rich too...] So in arguing for or against meritocracy in education, we have to think very carefully about the social model in which education is linked to qualifications and thus to the distribution of jobs in society, where different jobs correlate with different rewards. Do we think the existing social system is defensible, or do we believe that a better model for society would be one in which everybody gets the same wage irrespective of what kind of job they do, for example? Answering these questions necessitates, in turn, attending to questions regarding human nature, needs and capabilities, and issues of incentive. It appears that the question of what education is for cannot be cut off from the question of the kind of society we want. Indeed, this is evident in works like Plato’s Republic which, while widely regarded as the first major work of political philosophy, is also essentially a text about education. Yet the work of philosophers of education consists not just in spelling out the implications of political theories for educational policy and practice, but further, in examining the complex intersections between the different values and beliefs underpinning educational concepts.

For example, while ‘equality of opportunity in education’ may appear to be a fairly uncontroversial idea, what, exactly, does such ‘equality’ mean in an educational context? Should Rudge and Dakin receive equal amounts of Irwin’s time and energy? Or should Rudge, because he comes from a home where he does not have access to the kind of educational resources available to Dakin, perhaps be compensated by extra time and resources? In other words, should a concept of needs be the basis on which we decide what is to constitute a just allocation of resources? What if Rudge is disadvantaged not because of his home environment, but because of some genetic defect? Would we then feel the same about compensating him?

Our answers to these questions are underpinned by ideas about what is fair, just, or good: ideas which can be greatly enriched by studying the work of political philosophers in their theories of society. Foremost amongst these today is John Rawls, whose Theory of Justice is the most influential work in contemporary political philosophy. Rawls wanted to articulate a defence of a theoretical political system in which people’s natural abilities and ‘genetic lottery’ do not affect their life chances. Taking his work seriously would have radical consequences for our thinking about education – although just how radical remains a hotly contested issue.

Some contemporary philosophers of education working in a Rawlsian vein, such as Harry Brighouse, have argued that it is precisely because our current political system is unequal that we must defend advancing educational opportunity. But if the system was not unequal, would the system work? One could argue that if no economic advantage were attached to different jobs, there would be no incentive to do certain more difficult jobs, and the economy would collapse. It is indeed this insight which is behind Rawls’ defence of the difference principle – the argument that we should tolerate a degree of inequality in society insofar as it maximises the benefit of the least well-off.

But terms like ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘meritocracy’, used in an educational context do not always map on to particular political positions in a straightforward fashion, and we should be wary of attempts to simplify debates on educational aims and policies that assume that such terms do. What philosophers of education can contribute to such debates is a more nuanced understanding of the concepts and values involved, and an articulation of the deeper philosophical questions they prompt.

So while Irwin’s meritocratic view may be more readily associated with a model of laissez-faire capitalism, whereas a more radical egalitarianism may imply social engineering through schooling, this is not the end of the story. We first have to ask ourselves why we want to defend particular political and social structures – and perhaps we also have to ask ourselves whether there’s not something deeply troubling about the idea of using education as a tool for social and political change? If education is to mean anything at all, should it not simply be valued for its own sake?

Such considerations lead us back to eccentric old Hector and his concern for “making people more rounded human beings.” This aim has a long history in the philosophy of education and can be traced back to the liberal ideal, according to which education should be concerned with a broad development of the human being – ‘learning how to live’ – rather than narrow, vocational training and the specialised learning of skills. Indeed, the contrast between the liberal and the vocational is still firmly entrenched in our educational discourse.

Leading theorists in the liberal education tradition, including contemporary philosophers of education such as Paul Hirst and Richard Peters, emphasise that on the liberal view, education is something more than the acquisition of information that could be used – or abused, a la Irwin – for instrumental purposes. The educational ideal espoused by such theorists is one in which students would be immersed in, or ‘initiated into’ different forms of knowledge, and regarded as intrinsically valuable. This in fact seems to be what Hector – albeit in a rather chaotic fashion – is aiming at in his General Studies classes: a love of literature for its own sake; a love of language which can only be appreciated through actually living it; reading the poetry, singing the songs. He is, understandably, appalled at the suggestion that his teaching can be reduced to snappy ‘gobbets’ to be whipped out and used to impress the Oxbridge examiners.

Yet ideas of what constitutes ‘worthwhile knowledge’ or a ‘well-rounded person’ are notoriously contested. In his classic defence of the liberal educational ideal, Rousseau, one of the greatest philosophers of education, says, in Book I of Emile: “Whether my pupil is destined for the army, the church, or the law, is of little import. Before his parents chose a vocation for him, nature called him to human life. Life is the trade I want to teach him. Leaving my hands I grant you he will be neither a magistrate, a soldier, nor a priest; he will be first of all a man.”

Even leaving aside the gender bias in Rousseau’s choice of language, the ideal of ‘the educated man’ or ‘the educated person’ as developed by liberal educators through the ages, has always reflected, to a certain extent, a particular set of political and cultural values. Contemporary feminist philosophers of education such as Jane Roland Martin have addressed the way the predominant ideal of the educated person, for hundreds of years, excluded traits, functions and values traditionally associated with women. But both Rousseau’s work and the critique of it illustrate the general point that one cannot really articulate and defend coherent educational aims and values without articulating the relevant context of social and political values. While historians of education are fond of pointing to Rousseau as the first ‘child-centred’ educator, it is in fact, impossible to appreciate the educational significance of Emile without also reading Rousseau’s The Social Contract. Likewise, in order to fully appreciate educationally important ideas such as ‘the knowledge of the good’ found in Plato’s work, one needs not only a grasp of the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions of Plato’s philosophy, but a familiarity with the political structure of The Republic. For ultimately, the education Plato proposes is intended to produce and sustain his utopian society.

All this prompts an even larger question: to what extent should education serve the structures of existing society, and to what extent should it, and can it, challenge them? Many philosophers of education have regarded schools as sites for political struggle, where, through educational processes, social changes can be brought about, challenging existing structures and assumptions, and making society radically more equal and democratic. Indeed Hector, in his eccentric way, sometimes seems to be doing just this: while appearing to uphold the classic liberal ideal of education for its own sake, he is also, by his very refusal to ‘play the game’ of seeking entrance to prestigious universities, sowing the seeds of subversion in his students: making them question the underlying values of the system in which they are living. Which goes to show that one does not necessarily have to leave the system in order to subvert it.

In the end we, like Bennett, may be left only with Hector’s wistful comment that when it comes down to it, all the teacher can really hope to do is to “pass it on boys. Pass it on.” A touching sentiment with which many teachers would agree, I’m sure. But by studying the philosophical aspects of their educational ideas, perhaps teachers, policy makers and educational theorists can come to have a better understanding of just what they are passing on, and why.

© Judith Suissa 2007

Judith Suissa is Lecturer in Philosophy of Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. Her book, Anarchism and Education: a Philosophical Perspective, was published by Routledge in 2006.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X