education philosopher

Review of Brighouse’s “On Education”

Posted in Book reviews, Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on January 27, 2010

Below is a review I wrote for on philosopher Harry Brighouse’s book On Education.


As part of the “Thinking in Action” series, educational philosopher Harry Brighouse has written this brief, thoughtful book on education. Section 1 is devoted to the larger abstract question of why we educate. The second section is devoted to specific curricular questions like whether the state should make citizenship education compulsory or should allow religion in schools.

Brighouse’s central premise is that the primary reason to educate is to provide students with the tools they need to flourish. In order to flourish, one needs to be (relatively) autonomous in ability to think and decide one’s courses of action. Thus, a primary goal of schooling should be to equip students with the skills and knowledge they will need to be autonomous, including exposure to ways of life different than their own. Brighouse uses this idea to justify state intervention in compelling parents not to send children to overly sectarian schools. We owe it to future adults to give them those skills that will allow them to be autonomous, and allowing them to be educated in insular schools, where only one way of life is talked about, threatens that future autonomy.

I have to pause on this point because while I can see its merit, I can also see that it ignores the already-existing autonomy of parents to educate their children (whom they are legally responsible for) the way they choose. Brighouse’s suggestion that we disallow parents to send children to insular schools (in the name of future autonomy) can only be done by violating the already-existing autonomy of parents. It also sees the state’s vision for children as more important than parents’ vision. I think the issue is simply more nuanced than Brighouse’s argument suggests.

Brighouse is also very vocal in insisting that, while it is legitimate to prepare students to be workers by teaching them labor skills, this should not be the primary motive for education. Further, Brighouse warns against educating kids to fit the economy (“We need more scientists, so let’s have more science classes.”), and would rather teach kids a broad variety of employment skills so that they can be autonomous and choose their own employment path. Historically, policy makers have often let economic demands influence curricular decisions, but as Brighouse rightly points out (a) steering students towards certain careers takes away their autonomy, and (b) we simply cannot know what careers will be in demand or necessary in the future. Thus, it is better to give students a broad exposure to different career paths and teach them skills they can apply to many different careers.

The second section of the book focuses on the questions of whether to allow religion and citizenship education in schools, and whether schools should teach patriotism. Here, Brighouse again uses autonomy as a measure. Anything that runs the risk of endorsing certain opinions over others runs the risk of reducing student autonomy. Teaching patriotism (especially at an early age where students may be less critical) may diminish the students’ ability to decide their allegiances for themselves, and may even paradoxically lead the student to resent their country as the student may later decide that they recieved spin, rather than education.

As far as religion goes, Brighouse is also more tolerant than many in the US about religion being allowed in school, so long as the school itself doesn’t endorse a position on religious doctrines. In other words, one could have a comparative religion class and allow students to bring religious speech or attire into school. And doing so will increase student autonomy by exposing students to a variety of ways of life. We must take care, though, that schools not endorse or condemn religious doctrines themselves.

One of my concerns, though, is that while Brighouse wants schools to remain neutral on matters of how to live, Brighouse seems not to realize (or have room to deal with) how complex such a feat is. First, young children may well have to be taught some degree of how to live (by, say, teachers reminding students to be nice to students of other religions and skin colors).This is a situation where it is necessary and proper for schools to take a stand on how to live.

Second, Brighouse himself suggests several times that schools should support a more-or-less anti-consumerist ethos and while I am not sure he realizes it, this would mean that schools are condemning one way to live and endorsing another. In some sense, schools have to endorse certain ways of life over others (as a teacher, I discouraged my students from being gang members and saw this as justified). And sometimes, neutrality on matters of how to live are construed as endorsements (to religious folk, schools’ not endoring one holy book over another will be seen as taking sides). All of this is to say that “On Education” could have done with about fifty more pages where these murky waters could have been explored more.

All in all, it is hard to find fault with Brighouse’s defense of education-as-equipping-for-autonomy. For such a short book, Brighouse does a great job framing the issues and arguing for his positions. I do wish the book was longer because I think some issues Brighouse tackles are more complicated and nuanced than this book allows. I would still reccomend this book to those interested in where philosophy can be applied to pressing educational issues of the day.


4 Responses

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  1. Bill Starr said, on February 19, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    I haven’t read this book, but your review is interesting.

    I am a fan of separation of school and state, allowing each parent to fulfill his God-given responsibility of training up his children in the way they should go (as best he understands that), whether on their own (home schooling) or through delegation (private schooling).

    Have you read any of Albert Jay Nock’s philosophy on training and education?

  2. KevinCK said, on February 19, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Yes, I have read Nock. While he is a bit rhetorically over the top (in a curmudgeonly sort of way), I do agree with his assessment of our misuse of the word “equality” (in a political sense) to mean that all are equally ready for x level of education.

    I sympathize with divorcing the state from educational matters. But I am also sympathetic, as is Brighouse, to the idea that as a nation founded on the idea of avoiding a caste system, it is a public good to offer children access to education in an attempt to give all children some opportunity to have potential realized.

    I think that this looks like a voucher system.

  3. Bill Starr said, on February 19, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    If we’re going to use government to redistribute property so as to give the children of the poor more-or-less equal access to education, I would favor a per-child tax credit, rather than vouchers. With vouchers, there will always be the temptation for government to stay in the business of only allowing vouchers to be used at certain “approved” institutions of learning, even if the parents might prefer to provide for their childrens’ education at home or at some “unapproved” private educational establishment.

    The older I get the more important I believe it is for individuals in a free society to be exposed to points of view not “approved” by those in the ruling class. I think this exposure is more likely to occur with credits than with vouchers, and more likely to occur with vouchers than at tax-funded government (aka public) schools.

  4. Bill Starr said, on February 20, 2010 at 1:46 am

    I happened upon this article which seems to flesh out my last thought pretty well.

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