Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The future of teacher education?

I'm pretty unsympathetic to the MacIntyre/Williams criticisms of modern moral theories (I think the Kantian/Korsgaardian has more than enough resources to do justice to ground projects/real human flourishing and I have significant doubts that society suffers at all from leaving behind aretaic theories of virtue) but there is still a lot of value in what Higgins has to say about the struggle to maintain a good, integrated life while participating in the practice of teaching.

In Chapter 8, we finally get to the bottom of what Higgins thinks teaching is all about: reflective questioning. Education, he writes, is "the ongoing conversation taking place in the space opened by the question of what best facilitates human flourishing; it consists of the implicit and explicit answers, described and enacted by those theorists, practitioners, and theorist/practitioners who feel called to join the conversation." (258) All education is necessarily concerned with human flourishing in one form or another, and assumes some account of what human flourishing is. (Also, for the record, don't miss his very insightful account of teachers surrounded by textbooks and tests suffering from "pedagogical Stockholm Syndrome" on p. 256.)

It probably goes without saying that this is a pretty romanticized notion of education.

But the virtue of this account is that carves out a marvelous opportunity for educators to fulfill their desires to learn in addition to fulfilling students' needs to learn. It also provides a great foundation for reforming the way teachers are educated in higher ed today. At the end of the book Higgins suggests that education needs to be urged away from its pre-professional standing and merged with ethics and philosophy (philosophical anthropology, anyway) to take its rightful place at the center of a liberal education. Then perhaps the teachers we graduate from college will stand a chance at leading meaningful lives in meaningful classrooms. (The book ends pretty abruptly here -- I would have liked to hear more. Maybe it's coming in the sequel?)

I haven't been able to mull this thought very long (I just got my second copy of the book after reading the first couple of chapters and leaving my first copy in the seatback pouch of a Delta airlines flight back from a conference) but it seems like the right track. Of course, I'm a philosopher and this sounds a lot like the best practices inherent in a philosophy classroom -- and everyone could use more philosophical questioning skills, right? I'd definitely want my children taught by teachers embedded in that kind of teaching practice. I can see how Higgins wants to re-conceptualize even pre-professional education as part of a larger conversation that gives students and teachers a bigger picture so they don't fall by the wayside into "training". I don't think you need a MacIntyrean framework in order to motivate such reforms. But I also worry that the vast majority of teacher personalities wouldn't lend themselves to the kind of Socratic humility that would be necessary to conduct classes as subsets of the great conversation. I worry that without assurance that educators could gain this kind of perspective and use it everyday, many classrooms could devolve further into power struggles between teachers who no longer enjoy the authority of being the ones who pass on knowledge and have to contend with students who derive power and pleasure from toppling such authorities. Maybe the personality problem would alleviate itself after the cultural transformation had begun and teachers start self-selecting in a different way. But until then teacher training, assessment, and curriculum revisions (done well, with modifications to help instructors improve their own knowledge) don't look like bad second place options.


  1. One (or really two) of the things Higgins underscores (which I like very much) are (1) that education should focus on authentic questioning, by both students and teachers, and (2) genuine education is normative, in that when it succeeds in enables students to make normative (ethical, aesthetic, rational, etc.) judgments that they could not make prior to that education. The latter was something that Plato and Aristotle, their other disagreements aside, agreed upon. But of course in contemporary liberal societies, such talk sounds condescending and makes people very nervous. I wish we could recover the truth in (2) without setting off alarm bells about 'values', etc. As Adam notes, (1) seems to place... ta-da... philosophy at the heart of education. Would that it were so!

  2. Thank you for the post Adam. I am torn because I do agree with Higgins and Michael that genuine education is normative, but i also think that multiculturalism raises genuine questions for state institutions, in particular, educational ones, about how to engage in such a normative undertaking without unjustly privileging one particular way of understanding human flourishing.


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