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«Paper Presented at the Annual Conference of the American Educational Studies Association, St Louis, November 2-6, 2011 By D.G. Mulcahy Central ...»

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Enlarging the Outlook on Liberal Education and the Educated Person

Paper Presented at the Annual Conference of the American Educational Studies Association, St

Louis, November 2-6, 2011


D.G. Mulcahy

Central Connecticut State University



For centuries the interrelated ideals of a liberal education and the educated person have

influenced the content and what is nowadays referred to as the delivery of education in schools and colleges. In fact, the expected outcomes of a liberal education define for many what it means to be an educated person. In the prevailing definition of modern times and right up to our own day, the focus is almost entirely upon intellectual achievement in the form of broadly based theoretical knowledge and understanding and intellectual skills of analysis and critique. In some idealizations there is a place for education for democratic citizenship;1 in others a place for spiritual life.2 Emotional development and practical knowledge and skills, however, are downplayed or excluded altogether.

While there has always been discussion of the merits of these conceptions of liberal education and the educated person, and of the suitability of liberal education as a preparation for work as well as civic and economic wellbeing, little attention has been paid to its potential contribution to preparation for home and family life, for personal relations and obligations, and for engaging in action. Similarly, for centuries little attention had been paid to its gendered character. That is to say, if liberal education was developed largely in relation to the academic ideal of the ‘educated man’ as exemplified in “Education and the Educated Man,”3 by R. S.

Peters, for example, it was taken that the contents of these ideals would also apply to women.

It is one of the lasting contributions of Jane Roland Martin that once she entered the discussion in the early 1980s, the debate on liberal education and the educated person would be profoundly changed. In the years since the appearance of Martin’s landmark publications of the early and middle 1980s, including “Excluding Women from the Educational Realm,”4 which is a particular focal point for our discussions here, scholarship on liberal education has undergone a considerable shift on the questions of its purpose, content, and presentation. The same is true of what it means to become an educated person. Nor is philosophical investigation of the curriculum now stuck in a rut, as Martin asserted it was in the early 1980s.5 Such is the scope of Martin’s work, in fact, that it is not possible here to dwell on the full range of complex issues impacted by her writings from that time until now. For this reason I shall largely confine my attention to those aspects of Martin’s thought dealing most directly with the ideas of a liberal education and the educated person and which are also related to the theoretical basis of education as encounter elaborated in her latest book, Education Reconfigured: Culture, Encounter, and Change.6 This I aim to do here first by discussing the manner in which over the past thirty years Martin’s work in this area has impacted philosophical debate through the many new perspectives and arguments she brought to bear on it. These perspectives and arguments reflect in large part the overriding theme of bringing into the conversation the historical experience of women in both thought and practice and what has been said of it. In doing so, I shall discuss what I see as key dimensions of this conversation which, in Martin’s view, were overlooked or neglected in the narrow philosophical analysis of education in the prevailing order of the 1980s (and in the view of Education Reconfigured right up to the present day) and which she insisted ought to become central to it. Then, ranging more broadly, I shall attempt to contextualize Martin’s contribution since the appearance of “Excluding” with reference to other developments in educational theorizing of contemporary interest that tie in with her treatment of the ideas of a liberal education and the educated person. These include Martin’s positions on the broadening out of what may be considered legitimate curriculum content, education for democratic citizenship, the recognition of a rightful place for practical knowledge, and her quest to gain greater recognition of the place of care, concern, and connection in education. Throughout I shall attempt to discern how bringing in women and the reproductive processes of society into the educational debate has impacted educational discourse. I shall steer clear of some matters highlighted in Education Reconfigured where I find myself in some disagreement with Martin, such as whether education is necessarily an intentional undertaking. These are of a more academic nature and provide no grounds for rejecting her enlargement of outlook7 on liberal education and the educated person which I welcome.

–  –  –

Challenging inherited conceptions of liberal education and the educated person Having already established her reputation in the philosophical analysis of education, by the early 1980s Martin’s educational thought had begun to express a distinctively feminist character that was less clearly evident in her published work before that time. It is an awareness more pronounced, for example, in the article on Peters’s concept of the educated person in 1981, “The Ideal of the Educated Person,”8 than in the article of some twelve years earlier described by Martin as her first venture into the philosophy of curriculum,9 namely, “The Disciplines and the Curriculum”10 or “Needed: A New Paradigm for Liberal Education,”11 Martin’s sharp critique of Paul Hirst’s theory of a liberal education also published in 1981. It was, of course, the focal point of “Excluding Women from the Educational Realm”12 when it appeared in 1982, and it has been a recurring feature of her work since that time.

To say that the distinctively feminist character of Martin’s educational thought was less clearly evident in her work before the early 1980s is not to say that it was not present, of course.

On the contrary, as I conceive of it, it exerts an important influence even in “The Disciplines” and in “Needed.” In fact, I believe it constitutes the underlying insight on which the subsequent and more explicit expression of a distinctive feminist character evident in “Excluding” is based.

So what is this insight and how has it challenged the inherited conceptions of liberal education and the educated person?

Odd as it may seem that grown men and by some accounts13 maybe a few women would allow it, by the mid twentieth century a fantastic concept of education had come to dominate the philosophical discussion of education. Adrift from common sense, it even denied what educational thought and practice going all the way back to the Greeks recognized when calling for education of mind and body and education for doing and making alongside education for thought and reflection. It led to a false and ill conceived idea of liberal education that confused practical knowledge and understanding with mechanical (or narrowly vocational) and then deemed it unfit for consumption by the educated person. While the exponents of this view in varying idealizations were many (including Newman and Adler), as we know for Martin it was given an especially influential exposure by Hirst and Peters. If their headline read in prosaic fashion that education was knowledge and understanding in depth and breadth, the fine print clarified that by knowledge was meant theoretical knowledge and by breadth was meant initiation into the seven forms of knowledge identified by Hirst. These were mathematics, physical science, interpersonal experience as found in history for example, moral judgment, aesthetic experience, religion, and philosophy.14 There was no such entity as elementary education, reading and writing not being forms of knowledge were left in limbo, and practical knowledge belonged in dungeons peopled by money grabbers and political campaigners along with those who actually provide services such as teachers, medical practitioners, and members of the armed forces.

Because for many an education of a largely theoretical kind was considered suitable for purposes of the general education of the population at large, with the spread of mass education or public schooling from the nineteenth century onwards, and supported by institutions of higher education, it increasingly came to be viewed as what constituted a good education—a manifestation of what Martin characterizes in Education Reconfigured as the deep structure of educational thought. While the argument favoring a place of privilege for theoretical knowledge in the account of education originally presented by Hirst and Peters and which, as you know, was later retracted by Hirst,15 is typically found in advocates of liberal education, all do not lay down quite such stringent requirements as they. While insisting that only disciplinary knowledge should be allowed in the school curriculum Philip Phenix, for example, considered the arts of movement such as dance to meet this requirement, as he did ordinary language such as English, and ‘nondiscursive symbolic forms’ where language is used “to express personal subjectivity.”16 For his part, Adler seemed to allow an even more lenient interpretation, requiring only that the curriculum consist of recognized bodies of organized knowledge, essential skills of learning, and works of art and literature that promote the enlarged understanding of ideas and values. Study of literature and the fine arts and even engaging in dramatic and artistic activities are all acceptable.

Importantly, subjects not deemed general or liberal, those considered specialized or vocational, were to be excluded.17 With subjects grounded in the historical experience of women gaining little if any mention, it is at or around this point that the most widely recognized line of demarcation between those subjects considered permissible in a good or liberal education and those deemed unfit is usually drawn. In a case revealing the sometimes arbitrary and dubious nature of this dividing line, namely, that line considered to distinguish acceptable curriculum knowledge (i.e., theoretical or scientific) from unacceptable (i.e., practical), in the 1970s the National University of Ireland introduced a sharp distinction between two forms of the subject home economics offered in Irish schools. ‘Home economics: social and scientific,’ as it was termed, was deemed acceptable as meeting requirement for matriculation by school leavers into the University whereas ‘home economics: general’ was not.18 The official difference between both versions was that the ‘social and scientific’ included elements of a scientific or theoretical kind whereas the ‘general’ included practical elements such as cooking and sewing instead. It was because of its particular combination of omissions and inclusions that the general course was considered unsuitable for matriculation. At least that was the justification. There was no explanation of how in the social and scientific course one could gain knowledge of a practical field of study without engaging in practical activities integral to it or even more simply why there could not be a version combining practical elements and a scientific dimension. To be fair, no one went far as to say officially that all of this was to keep girls or “dopey” kids who were good cooks from going to college. One way or another, however, an obvious conclusion to be drawn was that there was something decidedly deficient and maybe offensive about the practical.

Given the sometimes otherworldy conceptions reflected in different accounts of education as identified above, one might already have come to believe that Martin’s view that there was something about them that did not make good sense is less remarkable than the fact that she had to express it in the first place. This may be true but it is also to oversimplify. Yes, Martin did state the obvious in declaring that the emperor had no clothes. That is to say, what Martin said, namely, that education cannot be reduced to propositional or theoretical knowledge may be true but ever since the beginning of time people have drawn a distinction between academic or book knowledge and street smarts and besides appearing from time to time in discussions such as this one they are largely ignored. For this reason if no other it needs to be said, the reservations expressed by McMurray as regards the contribution of “Needed” to the debate notwithstanding,19 Martin did break important new ground there. It lay in the range of arguments and perspectives introduced and in the precision and force with which she critiqued Hirst’s position and, by implication, the philosophical underpinnings of traditional theories of liberal education. Between this and her critique of male bias in Peters’s concept of the educated man, Martin laid out in concise terms a stunning challenge to the inherited conceptions of liberal education and the educated person. It is this, too, that made it possible for philosophical investigation of the curriculum to get out of the rut in which it was stuck and for Martin to begin to elaborate her reconceptualization of liberal education and the educated person, what she terms in Education Reconfigured her enlargement of the outlook on them. In doing so she would bring to bear the full force of her particular feminist insight on the claims of those once referred to as the purists by Mary Warnock.20 This is the same insight evident in embryonic form as far back as “The Disciplines;” it is applied to great effect in “The Ideal of the Educated Person” and “Needed;” it is the centerpiece of “Excluding;” it is perhaps most fully manifest in The Schoolhome,21 and it is, of course, maintained in Education Reconfigured some thirty after it appeared in “Excluding.” So what, more specifically, is this insight, what are the arguments and perspectives in which it is presented, and how has it led to the reconfiguration of education all these years later?

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