By Harry Brighouse
Like prisons, schools often seem pointless to those inside, while those outside find it hard to imagine society without them. One difference, however, is that whereas there is a healthy and ongoing debate about what jails are for, the fundamental purpose of state education is rarely publicly examined. This is odd, because almost everyone faces a minimum sentence of 12 years inside educational institutions, often against their will. Surely we should be clear as to why we take such apparently draconian measures to educate our youth.
The question is of much more than academic concern, as Harry Brighouse's challenging and timely polemic makes abundantly clear. Brighouse addresses three controversies in education: religious schools, citizenship education, and the inculcation of patriotism. He makes it plain that we can have no chance of deciding what the right policies are in these areas unless we have sound principles guiding what schools in general ought to be doing.
The book is therefore a rare example of a philosophical discourse with a direct relevance to contemporary policymaking.
Before he tackles the practical issues, Brighouse dedicates the bulk of his unbulky book to the fundamental question of what education is for. The answer, he argues, is: to promote human flourishing. It's not difficult to get a general feel for what "flourishing" means; health, opportunity, happiness and the development of potential all contribute to it, but it is more than the sum of these parts. Trying to define it too precisely, however, is like trying to scoop water with a fishing net. It is to Brighouse's credit that he makes the idea seem substantial enough to fulfil its central role. Aristotle, who wrote what could be seen as the first draft of Brighouse's argument two and a half millennia ago, would have approved.
The concept of flourishing is not so vague, however, as to be an uncontroversial goal of education. The trouble is that different people have very different ideas about what we need to reach our potential. Many Christians, for example, believe that only a life lived in fellowship with Christ can be a full one. But this is not something most atheists or Muslims would be happy to see schools teaching. How are we, then, to accommodate these different visions of the good life?
Brighouse accepts that we may legitimately disagree about what constitutes a flourishing life. However, he argues that the role of education is not to inculcate specific values, but to give people the ability to choose values for themselves. That means giving children the autonomy to make fundamental choices about how they should live, even if these do not match the values of their parents.
The trouble with this line of argument is that making "autonomy-facilitation" a key goal of schooling looks not so much like the promotion of a value fundamental to all belief systems, but the imposition of one, specifically liberal, belief system on everyone. For many devoutly religious people, presenting children with a smorgasbord of belief systems to choose from is not a sensible promotion of autonomy but a rash invitation to worship false idols. Brighouse is aware of this objection and he defends the value of autonomy well. But not everyone will be convinced, and that leaves him with the problem of advocating a fundamental principle that cannot command near-universal assent.
It's no disgrace that he doesn't have a way out; the problem of how liberalism proscribes the imposition of one set of values while being a value system itself is an apparently intractable one. His failure to square the circle is certainly not born of any unwillingness to recognise the right of the religious to express their values. Indeed, in the book's most surprising and original chapter, Brighouse argues that, despite all he has said, it may be better to allow state-funded religious schools than to ban them. The reasons for this are purely pragmatic. State-funded religious schools can be forced to comply with certain requirements. These include the need to follow a national curriculum that covers the study of other religions, but they could be extended to include an admissions procedure that allows in students of many faiths or none.
Private religious schools, by contrast, can do more or less what they want.
And if there are no state-funded religious schools, a good number of students who would have gone to them will go to the private ones. Given that banning private religious schools is politically, if not ethically, unacceptable, it therefore seems that the least worst option may be to allow taxpayer-funded religious schools.
This kind of argument has been used by those who fear that private Muslim schools may foster a less moderate and more divisive form of Islam than state-funded ones. But to see a similar argument made by such an enthusiastic defender of Enlightenment values still comes as a surprise. As the co-author of a pamphlet against religious schools written by a group of humanist philosophers who agree with many of Brighouse's fundamental convictions, it certainly makes me feel our case was not as strong as we may have thought it was.
Brighouse's other recurring theme is the pernicious influence of commerce.
Corporate sponsorship and advertising are creeping into schools, as is a demand to educate children to serve the needs of business. He accepts that preparing people to be able to participate in economic life is a core purpose of education, but insists we need to make sure we do so in a way that suits the children first, and business second. It's a subtle but important distinction. But in practice, since success for both sides requires matching the needs of the people with those of commerce, to fret too much about who gets priority threatens to lead to a pointless chicken-and-egg debate.
As is the case throughout this book, even when he is not totally correct, Brighouse is asking the right questions and is at least looking in the right areas for the right answers. If forthcoming debates about education policy do not draw heavily on what he has to say here, then they will be severely impoverished.
Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine