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Perspective on Recurring Controversies In Education

In trying to get bearing on many of the discussions that arise when thinking about education, I took to the books. 1993 Ruth Jonathan was Head of the Department of Education at the University of Edinburgh and was Chairman of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain. In her work she examines the complex notion of education.  This blog entry revoices and examines some of the thinkers and issues highlighted in her contribution to the Handbook of Educational Ideas and Practices.

 “…The debate surrounding education in any complex society is influenced by economic and socio-political circumstance, and by the findings and fashions of educational theory….


Hartnett and Naish explore the complex relationship which exists between a system of formal education and the society it serves both to reproduce and to modify. They emphasize the reciprocity of this relation, with social change modifying the demands made on education, and consequent provision opening up some possibilities for society in the future whilst foreclosing others.

They draw attention to the moral and political nature of decisions made in this area, since these are basic to the formation of the social future. There will thus be a struggle for control of the system, and conflicts concerning its content, process, and management, which will reflect the dominant values of society and divergences of interests within it.

After mapping the manner in which current values and interests are reflected in the educational preoccupations of the Western capitalist democracies, and arguing that they are neither adequate nor inevitable, these writers propose an alternative view.

The conception of education they propose implies a wider notion of social identity than that of worker and consumer, and requires a schooling system which should not be thought of as principally serving industry to the economy.

Certain conditions are required, however, they argue, for a general education to provide an effective preparation for adult life as a fully autonomous citizen, and these conditions require changes in social ethos and arrangements which lie beyond school [4].

Industrialised nation

White [2] approaches the primary question of what should be the aims of education by declaring this to be a fundamentally evaluative matter, though not thereby arbitrary. He argues to justify the claim that in a complex industrialized society we must aim to promote personal autonomy of a certain sort. This would involve the assimilation and understanding of the beliefs, values, and practices of society, together with the ability to evaluate and possibly modify them.

As an overarching aim for the education of all the young, this, he argues, is compatible both with personal wellbeing and with the flourishing of the social group. White argues that the fundamental aim of education is to promote the capacity for a certain style and quality of life.

In todayâ’s climate of opinion such a perspective is eclipsed by the perceived need for schooling to attend to the urgent task of fitting the young for existing society and its likely employment conditions, since it is undeniable that a certain level of group prosperity is required to fund the universal provision of a general education.

Chitty [3] focuses on that recurrent strand of controversy concerning the proper purpose of schooling, which has dominated debate over the past decade, by examining the tension between the demands of education and the need for training.

He reviews the resurgence of the vocational impetus, locating this in an economic and social context, and seeks to sift reality from rhetoric in assessing its impact on practice.

Chitty highlights the dilemma implicit in overtly vocationalist policies which, if pursued for all, would be incompatible with an open future for society as a whole, or, if pursued only for some, would militate against the presumption of equality embodied in the comprehensive ideal.


1. Ruth Jonathan, Handbook of educational ideas and practices, 1989, ISBN: 0415020611; pp4 – 11

2. John White, The Aims of Education Restated, 2009 ISBN: 9780415562553

3. Clyde Chitty, Education and Training, Handbook of educational ideas and practices, 1989, ISBN: 0415020611

4. Anthony Hartnett, Michael Naish,1986, Education and society today: 1850001324

Further Reading:


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