Theorizing Pedagogy/Pedagogizing Theory

Below are some slightly boring reflections on the current attack on theory in Education Studies and some explanation for the disciplinary and political reasons for this hostility, from my review of Gert Biesta, Julie Allan and Richard Edwards’ edited collection Making a Difference in Theory: The Theory Question in Education and the Education Question in Theory (Routledge, 2014), published in the new issue of Radical Philosophy 183 (Jan/Feb 2014). There has been a blossoming of refreshingly interesting and radical work in the philosophy and politics of education from those within Education Studies as well as other disciplines, not least from the editors of the Theorizing Education series (who, unfortunately, don’t feature articles of their own in this collection), whose involvement therefore bodes well for future publications in the series.

Making a Difference in TheoryMy discussion of the inaugural collection in the series, below, insists on the necessity of distinguishing between “theory” and “ideology” in the Marxist sense in educational research, and as a consequence of resisting a tendency to recuperate German Idealism in order to renew contemporary educational theory. I therefore maintain the importance of Marxist philosophizing (exemplified in the German tradition of Frankfurt Critical Theory), alongside now more dominant strands of French (poststructuralist) sociology and Anglo-American pragmatism. Although – in order to open up such a terrain – I’ve sought to problematize any straightforward conflation of a “critical theory” of education with the “critical pedagogy” tradition, the works of Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, Glenn Rikoswki, and others remain vital in this context.

My own attempt to delineate this terrain is modelled on the transdisciplinary impetus within Cultural Studies; elsewhere I’ve sought to distinguish this from a philosophically problematic emphasis on Bildung in German Idealism (imported into English educational theory, largely from Kant and Schiller, via Coleridge and Arnold), on the one hand, and from a specifically Nietzschean elitism, on the other, by reworking Benjamin’s notion of the inhuman into a theory of the Inhumanities. The title of the Radical Philosophy review – a reference to Kant’s On the Common Saying [Gemeinspruch]: “It May be Right in Theory, But No Good in Practice” – indicates this critical engagement and deviation from a Kanian conception of the pedagogical function of what (in the English reappropriation of a “classical education”) we call the Humanities. 


One element of the reforms of English higher education that has received less attention than others is the overhaul of teaching training. Whilst the Conservative’s flagship Free Schools are, like independent schools, at liberty to employ unqualified teachers, changes made last year to the model funding agreement of Academy schools (directly funded by central government, typically supported by external sponsorship, and independent of local government control) and to the conditions of recruitment for comprehensives have now granted the same entitlement to schools across the sector. The Department for Education has simultaneously introduced a school-centred teacher training scheme, shifting around a quarter of current funding for training away from universities to an expanding network of teaching schools (of which over half are Academies).

These changes are intended to impact upon not only the economics of secondary and higher education (as increased competition between schools and universities over recruitment leads to the closure of education departments in HE) but also how teaching is taught and the kind of academic research that informs it. For Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, this comprises part of a sustained attack on what – borrowing from the neoconservatism of the US Culture Wars – he calls The Blob:

the network of educational gurus in and around our universities who … drew gifted young teachers away from their vocation and instead directed them towards ideologically driven theory.

In returning to an apprenticeship model the government seeks to reverse the professionalization of teaching, expressed in recommendations from 1884 ‘that what English Schoolmasters now stand in need of is theory; and further that the universities have special advantages for meeting this need’. It is this hostility towards theory that has led it to champion both school-based practical training and ‘evidence-based research’ in educational studies.

The inauguration of Routledge’s Theorizing Education Series is a satisfying counterblast to this retrogression. It aims to bring together work on the role of theory in educational research and practice alongside a distinctive focus on ‘articulating what explicitly educational function the work of particular forms of theorizing supports’. These aims are differentiated in its inaugural publication as ‘the theory question in education’ and ‘the education question in theory’, with the latter clarified by the series editors as addressing ‘whether education research necessarily has to rely on theoretical input from (other) disciplines or whether there are, or ought to be, distinctively educational forms of theory and theorizing’, and thus whether education is merely an applied field of study like business studies or an academic discipline in its own right.

The trandisciplinarity at stake in this question deserves further consideration, but it is first worth noting how it reflects a current anxiety within anglophone education studies, provoked perhaps most notably by the dispute between Paul Q. Hirst and Wilfred Carr in which Carr insisted that ‘education theory’ is the empty name given to futile attempts to ground educational practices in external ‘authorities’ (Plato, Rousseau, Kant…). It is not merely in the discourse of policymakers, then, but from within the discipline itself that theory has acquired something of a bad reputation over the last decade. It is tempting to ascribe this impatience towards theory to confusion over distinct areas of enquiry, comparable to an artist responding to a talk on aesthetics by demanding: ‘But how does this help me work better?’ But at the heart of this antagonism in fact lies not so much the paucity of theory itself as the limitations of practice.

Something of this suspicion towards theorizing nonetheless lingers across the essays collected in the opening section of the book on ‘The Contextual Presence of Theory’, which are concerned with uncovering the implicit theoretical bases of educational practices. Thomas S. Popketiz reveals how contemporary practices relating to students as ‘adolescents’, the learning ‘community’ and ‘problem-solving’ pedagogies can be traced back to theories expressing Protestant anxiety over urbanization and mass schooling, which are psychologized in American Progressivism and taken up into the mainstream via Dewey’s pragmatism. Similarly, Daniel Tröhler historicizes current educational practices in relation to the emergence of Protestantism, such that education becomes a core element of social life following the introduction of the modern notion of childhood in Rousseau and Basedow, with the goal of producing future citizens as a ‘safeguard [of] the modern world against possible dangers of modernity’.

Although this kind of historicizing is useful, it becomes critical only to the extent it is possible to theorize the exact nature of the relationship between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ in terms of social divisions, otherwise one is merely suspicious of theorizing per se (and of its propensity to ‘generalize’ or ‘universalize’). This is Carr’s position and something comparable seems to resonate in the force of the ‘alleged’ in Tröhler’s claim regarding ‘the alleged necessity to formulate an educational theory as intellectual legitimation and as instruction for educational practices’. However, this is complicated by the explicit refusal to distinguish between theory and ideology in its materialist sense (as the ideology of a ruling class), in the same way Gove talks of the ‘ideologically driven theory’ of The Blob. Here, some of the lessons of Althusser’s critique of the conspiratorial consequences of a negative theory of ideology as false consciousness remain unheeded (as if a secret group of elites know the truth and somehow deceive us). When Popketiz argues that ‘theories are material, but not in the Marxist sense’, he does so on the basis that they ‘don’t just stand there to push thought and ideas but are “actors” in the everyday world’. On the one hand, this resembles Althusser’s (Marxist) re-materializing of ideology in terms of apparatuses, but, on the other, refusing to distinguish such actors in relation to a ruling class ideology (as Althusser continues to do) leaves us with an idealist and even theological injunction against the sins of knowledge. Similarly, Tomasz Szkudlarek’s ontologizing of the function of theoretical excess as making the ‘ontological fault, or incompleteness’ of reality ‘invisible’, is only necessary because it proceeds from a uniquely idealist problem: how could it possibly be that educational mechanisms are already in operation before their theories are formulated?

This is surprising given that the most legitimate recourse to theory within anglophone education studies is that of French sociology: certainly Foucault, preferably Bourdieu. This follows from the transdisciplinary nature of its formation in the English-speaking world, which leaves it without a credible canon of its own, and also because the philosophical underpinnings of the discipline in Germany are problematically over-identified with the process of Bildung. In this, current educational theory mirrors one aspect of the development of contemporary theory more generally: either French poststructuralism or an updated idealism, omitting Marxist philosophizing. What renders this situation more acute in education studies, however, is a specific misunderstanding of German critical theory as either implicitly equated with its later Habermasian development or nominalistically misidentified with ‘critical pedagogy’ in general.

Robin Usher and Anna Anderson claim, for example, that ‘critical theory and its educational cognate critical pedagogy have probably been most influential in educational circles’ but that the limitations of critical theory necessitate a Foucauldian practice of genealogical critique. These limitations are equated with ‘a particular kind of [“totalizing and excluding”] rationality, which in its own way is equally oppressive’ because its ‘universalizing thrust’ does not submit their own position to critical scrutiny and entails ‘a will to know which is also a will to govern’. This description of the ‘emancipatory project’ of critical theory is caricatured enough to be a better description of that which the Frankfurt School originally criticized – and it is telling that this chapter contains not a single reference to any such theorist – but it also ignores the influence of Nietzschean genealogy on the same critical theorists (and the basis of their difference from later generations). To claim that Foucauldian genealogy advances beyond critical theory because it shows how ‘theories are the contingent turns of history rather than the outcome of rationally inevitable trends’ or because its notion of critique problematizes ‘the assumptions, familiar notions, unexamined ways of thinking on which the practices we accept rest’ and so ‘shows the fragility and contingency of the present in relation to the past’ rather than making a ‘telos or totalizing goal’ fails to distinguish Foucauldian genealogy from Frankfurt Critical Theory and reveals little familiarity with Negative Dialectics or the Arcades Project.

The generality of these claims would be less troubling if they weren’t echoed elsewhere in the book, such as when Popkewitz distinguishes his critical theory from ‘Frankfurt critical theory’ on the basis that he seeks to ‘denaturalize what is taken-forgranted, and to make fragile the causalities of the present’, or when Tröhler decries, with a little more justice, the ‘neo-Marxists clustered around the notion of “critical education” … who derived their theoretical assumptions from their study of the advocates of “critical theory” … and who via the method of critique of ideology (that was assigned only to the others) for self-determination of every individual’. Against this, I would suggest that the philosophical relationship between ‘critical pedagogy’ and ‘critical theory’ is often assumed rather than examined, and that within some proponents of ‘critical pedagogy’ today – but even in Freire’s work, for example – there resides a Marxist sociology with a Hegelian epistemology. Consequently, although I am sympathetic to Norm Friesan’s demand to radicalize and socialize the educational vocabulary of Bildung beyond its individualist framework and Johannes Bellmann’s attempt to ‘develop a social-theoretical approach to education as a distinct alternative to long-prevailing individualistic approaches’, I would argue that it is the materialist philosophy encoded within critical theory, rather than Hegelian idealism, which still provides the best resource for philosophizing the non-philosophical contents of mass education today.

The need for such a historical materialist approach emerges in Alexander M. Sidorkin’s usefully provocative essay ‘On the Theoretical Limits of Education’, which concerns not the apparent impoverishment of theory (which is only impoverished from the idealist standpoint of an insufficiency to either ground its claims or adequately conceptualize the real) but the enfeeblement of practice. Shifting the notion of ‘theoretical limits’ from the natural sciences to the context of education, Sidorkin applies the question of ‘how much can we push a certain thing; how much can we change it without destroying or turning it into something completely different or no longer useful’ to reforms of schooling. If the furthest limits of education concern human bioeconomics (limits on the ability for learning as a species and on the varying time and motivation to learn within a single lifespan), the near limits of education are those connected with the comparatively recent ‘institution of mass compulsory schooling’. When Sidorkin analyses these limits in terms of institutional arrangements of the labour of learning, his point is not to belittle mass education but to emphasize its difference from older (and often coexisting) institutions of elite schooling. A failure to recognize this difference, especially by policymakers who only have experience of the latter, perpetuates the ‘persistent myth that mass schooling can be refashioned into elite schooling’ and consequently the constant disappointment of those seeking to reform mass education in this way. I hold reservations about Sidorkin’s specific solutions to this problem, but the conclusion he draws is one that returns to the importance of continuing to theorize mass education against the impatience of frustrated educationalists: ‘we do not know what education is’ and without this understanding, ‘our analysis of practices and our recommendations will remain imprecise and ineffective’.

The absence of critical theory from this collection is significant because it elides a perspective from which to consider the broader impasses of theory in education and therefore address the anxiety over transdisciplinarity at the centre of these debates. The question of theory’s own insufficiency is the question of critical theory as conceived by the philosophers associated with the first generation of the Frankfurt School in the 1930s. The realization that this question cannot be addressed without simultaneously reflecting upon the historical and material conditions which constrain the academic disciplinarity and the idealism of traditional philosophy is what marks their theorizing as critical in a transdisciplinary sense, taking us beyond Hirst’s analytical philosophy and Carr’s pragmatism. This transdisciplinary theorizing anticipates and exceeds the notion of transdisciplinarity first coined in the context of a workshop on ‘Teaching and Research Problems in Universities’ by Jean Piaget in the 1970s.

Transdisciplinary theorizing of education is required if we are to confront both the ‘theory question in education’ and the ‘education question in theory’. An understanding of the expansion of the economy into all aspects of social relations, including the increasing commodification of education, is not possible without concepts and theories imported from a critique of political economy. As Lisbeth Lundahl argues, this includes both hidden and more direct forms of privatization: the introduction of Free Schools in Sweden (lauded by the Conservatives and tacitly accepted in Labour’s recent announcements) enforced a market on the whole system, including a state sector that now had to compete for students, teachers and resources. Simultaneously, existing theory, including the critical kind, must address the increasing pedagogization of society under the most recent developments of late capitalism: Angela Merkel, Bellmann reports, ‘wants to turn Germany into a Bildungsrepublik’. This concerns not just schools, colleges and universities but other areas of the state as well as corporations, charities, cultural and artistic institutions, as ‘lifelong’ and ‘flexible’ models of learning change how we work and the nature of the services and goods we consume. Szkudlarek is right to draw attention to Foucault’s anticipation of this.

In this regard, the current antagonism towards theory within Education Studies reflects a set of broader external and internal historical conditions (massification and commodification) reminiscent of those that generated the formation of Cultural Studies as the most fertile field of transdisciplinary theorizing in the twentieth century anglophone academy. There is, therefore, a double provocation arising from this book: not just ‘to theorize education’ but to ‘pedagogize theory’, since today it is pedagogy that most stands in need of a critical standpoint of its own.


2 thoughts on “Theorizing Pedagogy/Pedagogizing Theory

  1. Pingback: Celeb Youth | Pedagogy & the Inhumanities

  2. Pingback: Canonizing Education Theory | Pedagogy & the Inhumanities

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