School for Love

Onora O’Neill

  • The Philosophy of Teaching by John Passmore
    Duckworth, 159 pp, £18.00, July 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1031 7

Nobody could be more aware than Professor Passmore of the hazards of writing on the philosophy of teaching. He notes disarmingly that ‘the chance of writing even a reasonably good book on any branch of the philosophy of education is statistically very low indeed. It is terribly difficult to write in a manner which is neither philosophy for philosophy’s sake with an occasional example from teaching, nor just a series of commonplace banalities.’ His fear is that this book will fail in the latter way. Fortunately that fear is misplaced: the book fails on neither of these two counts. This is certainly not philosophy with pedagogic illustrations; and banality is kept at bay by the sheer diversity of topics and concerns which Passmore takes up, and by the unexpectedness and crispness of many asides and aperçus. He is learned and interesting, not only about philosophical and theoretical writings on education, but on the history of psychology and of pedagogy; he is familiar with contemporary classroom practices and pedagogic controversy; he is, of course, at home with the history of philosophy; he is humane and judicious, and cares that teaching be well done. The difficulties of the book reflect the problems of the subject; and these are problems which are not readily avoided.

The principal difficulty with writing on the philosophy of teaching might be put by saying that teaching is not, by itself, a philosophical problem. Nor, indeed, is education, by itself, a philosophical problem. Teaching and education are rather matters which are crucially affected by the philosophical positions we may adopt on other topics such as the nature of knowledge, morality and beauty. If we want to understand what can or should be taught to whom, and by whom this should be done, we need to understand what can and should be learnt, and by whom, and under what circumstances learning may or must be the result of teaching. And if we want to understand what can or should be learnt, and by whom, we will need to understand something about what can or should be known or believed, how lives can and should be led, and what should be appreciated or prized. A philosophical approach to teaching must therefore lead us back into considering theories of learning, and of cognition, and these considerations will take us on into the philosophical heartland to consider problems of knowledge, and the nature of action, of morality and of beauty.

Passmore is, of course, well aware of these connections, and frequently alludes to the philosophical backdrop of particular disputes about teaching. But he does not aim to articulate any larger account of the nature and limits of learning and knowledge, or of the reasons why some sorts of knowledge or capacities to act or appreciate should (or should not) be acquired by some or all persons. This is a piecemeal approach to the philosophy of teaching. Passmore draws extensively on analytical writing in the philosophy of education; he exposes ambiguities and draws clear distinctions. But in the end his articulation of the subject reflects no larger philosophical picture.

The discussion begins with the point that teaching is a triadic relation: persons teach subjects to other persons. The most typical contemporary instance of this triadic relation is the teaching of various subjects and skills to children in schools by persons trained and employed as teachers. Passmore is well aware that teaching need not be done by schoolteachers nor done to schoolchildren. He mentions Illich’s arguments for deschooling and Rousseau’s insistence that good teaching cannot be done in a school. Yet he does not either challenge or seek to ground the view that most important teaching is done by schoolteachers to schoolchildren; he aims ‘to keep in mind the concrete teaching-situation’ but not to argue for this restriction of focus. The book might quite accurately have been called ‘The Philosophy of Schoolteaching’. There are only incidental comments on the teaching that is done outside schools, by persons who are not trained or employed as teachers, to persons who may not be children.

Passmore has more to say about the subjects which are taught in schools. Although the book does include chapters devoted specifically to the teaching of English and to sex education, Passmore does not mean by ‘subject’ the traditional divisions of the school syllabus. What is taught is in his view primarily a diverse set of capacities, ranging from the most ‘closed’ capacities like the ability to count, to the most ‘open’ capacities which, like the appreciation of poetry, involve the development and exercise of judgment. In general, Passmore argues that the possession of ‘open’ capacities is of more value, but that ‘closed’ capacities are often indispensable if ‘open’ capacities are to be developed (no creative mathematics without the ability to count). However, the capacities in which Passmore is interested are, in the main, the cognitive capacities which teachers intend to impart. He has relatively little to say about either social or emotional learning, or about the ‘hidden curriculum’ which children master without their teachers consciously teaching it.

Schoolteachers need to do more than develop capacities. Their pupils must also acquire a great variety of information. Passmore conducts a gentle and convincing polemic against contemporary claims that children should not be burdened with detailed information, but rather taught concepts and structures. Information, he points out, is indispensable to intelligibility in most areas. There may be no good reasons for insisting that children acquire a mine of useless information: but there are good reasons for seeing that very large amounts of information are acquired, and acquired in such a way that the child can draw on, and not merely parrot, the information. As in his discussion of capacities, Passmore is careful to stress the variety of types of information and the variety of means by which it can be imparted.

Schooling that seeks only to develop capacities and to impart usable information would, in Passmore’s view, be impoverished. Children need to be taught also to be critical and imaginative and to care for certain pursuits and activities. On all three of these topics Passmore’s writing displays the very qualities he discusses. He is critical of inadequate conceptions of developing children’s imagination; he is imaginative about the ways in which children might come to love or to hate a subject; he cares that this most important of teaching be done well. The school is the place where children are most likely to acquire the intellectual loves; and the most important question about any teacher is whether he loves his subject and so can be ‘a begetter of passion’ for his pupils.

Passmore touches only lightly on the question of which loves teachers should impart to children. He agrees that ‘the ultimate dispute is about what kinds of love are good,’ but resolves the dispute merely by observing that ‘there has come to be ... some measure of agreement about the kinds of love which are characteristic of an educated man.’ Yet this agreement is fragile and local. In much of the world there are schools devoted primarily to developing love of country, church or party; in all parts of the world there are schools devoted to developing mean and narrow visions of what is worthwhile in human life. Yet Passmore says nothing about these deeper forms of indoctrination, including political indoctrination. This is perhaps surprising in view of the concern within analytical writing in the philosophy of education to distinguish teaching from indoctrination. Nor does Passmore comment or draw on the literature on moral education. These omissions are no doubt deliberate, since this is avowedly a book about the cognitive side of teaching. Yet the fact that the discussion finishes with a consideration of the intellectual loves suggests that in the end the separation of intellect from passion and action is artificial, in teaching as elsewhere. The book is at times frustrating for the reader whose interests are mainly philosophical or psychological. When the discussion seems to invite further exploration of epistemology or of theories of cognition, of nature-nurture controversies, or of ethical theory and moral growth, Passmore returns to articulating distinctions which can be made and followed in the classroom practice of teachers. For the reflective teacher this book might, however, offer more than more distant and systematic approaches to the philosophy of education and of teaching. It is sad that the book costs so much more than most teachers can afford.