Review of Brighouse’s “On Education”
Below is a review I wrote for amazon.com 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.