Thursday, September 23, 2021

Ibn Tufayl (1106-1185) – Natural learning


Although a critic of Al-Ghazzali, Ibn Tufayl follows through in this tradition of educational enlightenment in another part of the Muslim world, modern Spain, in Granada. This was a period of intense intellectual activity in this part of the Muslim world. He wrote a work of fiction The living one, son of the vigilant, which was widely admired across Europe for centuries, even by Leibniz. It possibly provided the impetus for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. In this neo-Platonic text, a boy is brought up in a natural environment, echoing Rousseau’s novel Emile.


The point is that we can gain knowledge of this world, and ultimately the divine, through our own efforts and learning. Even religion is seen to be the result of natural human feeling, observation and reflection, separate from scripture and revelations.

He also makes a distinction between logical or reasoned learning, and other learning which can be expressed and shared through language and intuition, that can only be shown obliquely through metaphors, allegories and stories. Although in the Neo-Platonist tradition, his views on education are synthesised with the Aristotelian view of empirical inquiry.

Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111) - Moral purpose

Al-Ghazzalis was a renowned Muslim scholar, in an age where education, knowledge and scientific endeavour were greatly valued, encouraged and practiced in the Muslim world. Born in Iran, he taught theology and philosophy in that great centre of learning, Baghdad. Familiar with Christian scholars and Greek texts from Plato, Aristotle and others, he remains one of the most influential Muslim thinkers and scholars.

Reason and religion

With a deep interest in rationalism and logic, subsumed within a religious context, in The Rescuer from Loss he reveals his own process of reflection and education but it is in The Revival of Religious Sciences that he lays out a systematic account of how to live one’s life, including the role of teaching and learning. Education is to be valued, a religious imperative. But far from being a religious dogmatist, he promotes the role of reason, critical thought and self-examination. This is far from the narrow, dogmatic role of teaching and learning in some areas of extreme Islam. 

Teaching & learning

The teacher must be sensitive to the differences among learners. Dialogue and listening are important skills, as teachers must see learners as humans with real needs in terms of morals and purpose. The pedagogy of punishment is not the point. The teacher must therefore be a model for behaviour and show the virtues of humility and honesty. To learn is not to learn by rote or by copying texts. Religiousons compliance is still the goal but education is about teaching the young to play a moral and purposeful role in society.


Goodhart (1956 - ) Somewheres and nowheres

David Goodhart founded and edited the political magazine Prospect. Now an author and journalist, he has written a series of books that have been seen as both diagnostic and prophetic in terms of what actually happened in politics. As a centre-left commentator, he believes in more local control and less dependence on universal state control. He also believes strongly that education is often a force, not for good, but social division, calling for reforms back towards a balance between the academic, knowledge professionals (Head), caring professionals (Heart) and vocational skills (Hand).

The Road to Somewhere

Although written prior to the Brexit vote, it turned out to be prophetic and a text that explained the cause of the Brexit vote, through an analysis of the way the UK population has developed culturally and demographically.

The Road to Somewhere (2017) was prophetic in seeing the country split, according to Goodhart, down cultural lines:

  • Somewheres - attached to place and local community (~50%)

  • Inbetweeners (~25-23%)

  • Anywheres - educated urban liberals (~20-25%)

His thesis is that the Anywheres now have too much power and tend to hold on to that power, especially in London but also in politics, the professions and media. In particular, he points to the ballooning of Higher Education and decimation of vocational opportunities. This, he thinks, has led to a core values divide, where one side looks down upon the other as ‘uneducated’. He sees this as unhealthy in a democracy.

Head, Heart and Hand

Goodhart’s Head, Heart and Hand: Why intelligence is over-rewarded, manual workers matter, and caregivers deserve more respect (2021) is a plea for the rebalancing of society, economics and rewards away from the Head (cognitive work) towards the Hand (making and manual work) and Heart (health and care work). We have reached what he calls 'Peak Head', the focus on funnelling everyone towards University degrees on a single route towards a single, cognitive elite. Many of the innovations in our past, such as the spinning jenny and steam engine were not driven by the University system and entire economies in the east, China, South Korea and Taiwan, were built, not on a University system (they came later) but by a more rounded approach to development. 

He sees education as a driver, not for social change, but increasing social inequalities, arguing that educators, at all levels – schools, colleges, Universities and workplaces - need to face up to the hypocrisy behind an economic system that rewards ‘Head’ (knowledge) workers at the expense of all others. Educational stratification has not created a better world, he claims, it has divided us and rewarded people unfairly. These inequalities have stretched societies to breaking point.

The danger, he sees, is that this elite will suffer badly when technology replaces their work quicker than it may replace the refuse collector or child-carer. What he recommends is policy built around the Heart, Hand and Head triumvirate.

Our educational system is hopelessly lop-sided towards the University sector and Goodhart explains how this hostage taking of society, property and money has evolved. He backs up his arguments building on Caplan’s work on education, which shows that, economically, too much money is wasted on ‘signalling’ in Universities and that alternatives have to be found, for the general good, but also on the basis of avoiding social unrest. The deification of Higher Education has been at the expense of the majority who do not go there.


Goodhart has been criticised as an apologist for racist, ant-immigraion attitudes, along with an inaccurate demographic breakdown of UK society. He acknowledges that such demographic categories are not necessarily verifiable and quantifiably accurate and the fact that they predicted the way people voted, not only in the Brexit vote but in other elections has given his analysis some cache.


Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere became essential reading for those interested in explaining, not just Brexit but other political upheavals, such as Trump in the US and the Gilet Jaunes in France. He was similarly prophetic with Head, Heart and Hands, when Covid struck, and our reliance on essential workers, the very people he talked about as Heart (carers, nurses etc) and Hands (delivery drivers, supermarket workers etc) kept the system going. Across these books he contrasts the centrifugal forces of hyper-globalisation stretched supply chains that rely on the free movement of goods and capital, with a more centripetal set of ideas around the local, social stability and solidarity. His prophetic writing has therefore made him an influential commentator and contributor to the idea that we must rethink education and work, not simply in terms of having more but of rebalancing towards vocational skills, also being more sensitive the needs of society as a whole.


Goodhart, D., 2021. Head, Hand, Heart: Why intelligence is over-rewarded, manual workers matter, and caregivers deserve more respect. Simon and Schuster.

Goodhart, D., 2017. The road to somewhere: The populist revolt and the future of politics. Oxford University Press.

Goodhart, D., 2013. The British dream: Successes and failures of post-war immigration. Atlantic Books Ltd.

Sandel (1953 - ) tyranny of merit and the common good

Michael Sandel is the Professor of Government at Harvard. As a political scientist he is described as a communitarian, although he doesn’t like the description, someone who sees the individual, not as an isolated self-determining agent, but as part of their community. He rejects Rawls' concept of a rational agent in morals in favour of creating a democracy that is sympathetic, not to individual aspiration and meritocracy, but greater goods. This has led him to see contemporary education, especially Higher Education, as a force for inequality and social division.


In The tyranny of merit: What’s become of the common good? (2020) Sandel diagnoses a relatively recent shift from the common good to a competitive meritocracy in Higher Education. The financialization of economies, and changes of attitudes towards success have led to a divide between winners and losers. Finance has moved away from the greater good and rewards for all, towards enormous rewards for the few who work in finance, based on speculative finance, not the creation of valuable goods and services. 

This has eaten away at the dignity of ordinary work. Rewards have become hopelessly imbalanced, buoyed up by meritocratic hubris and the success ethic. If chances are assumed to be equal or could be made equal, then those that flourish can attribute their success to personal agency, it is all down to their effort. This is what animates the meritocratic ideal. This divide has deepened, aided by Higher Education, which induces a feeling that the winners, the graduate class, deserve their success and that the rest fail because it is their fault, which has led to one group looking down on the other. A side effect of this is a lack of respect for vocational skills and work. 

Instead, we need an alternative account of agency and what it means to be free, a civic conception of freedom where to be free is not to be self-made but to have played a role within the country, society, place and families in which we find ourselves. A politics of the common good doesn’t reject personal freedom but recasts personal freedom by seeing ourselves as being part of something bigger.

National and local and community identities matter for Sandel. It should come as no surprise that elites have cast people who live outside of cities aside. The status of the nation as national living, identity and belonging has been eroded by the elites, in favour of the false narrative of meritocracy, which has deepened its grip over the last four decades in the US.


Sandel has come to believe that Higher Education has increased inequality and fed the neoliberal project. It first stretches out the ladder of inequality then gives a small number a leg up on that ladder. Individual upward mobility through Higher Education is not an optimised model, as it favours the few and disappoints and degrades the majority. The ‘rhetoric of rising’ is wrong-headed and this hierarchy of esteem in the UK and US works to the detriment of other educational institutions, namely vocational colleges. We must recognise that the large majority of people, nearly two-thirds, do not have degrees and are tired of the graduate class pushing them around and taking all the rewards.

He calls for a re-evaluation of education and new respect for vocational and other forms of learning and the dignity of work. We need to shift to a politics which renews the dignity of work. To create an economy where people lead decent lives, we need to reconfigure to pay people more but also give them more esteem and dignity. We need to debate this issue and find a better alignment between contributions people make and the rewards and recognition they need, towards the common good. This cannot be outsourced to markets. This, he hopes, will combat credentialism, something he finds less prevalent in mainland Europe.

People should be able to flourish in place, not by moving to an educational institution hundreds of miles away. This can now be enabled, he thinks,  through technology. Other rebalancing ideas include lotteries for elite institutions, as most of the 40,000 applicants for 2000 places, would flourish. A lottery could be applied, with extra tickets for poorer students. 


Meritocracy and credentialism is now so deeply ingrained in modern politics and education, with both religious and secular roots, that it is hard to see how change can happen without disruptive social unrest. Sandel also has some odd and utopian ideas around lotteries and luck, an abstract rather than real world solution. The solution is not to introduce luck into the equation but eliminate the inequalities by making education cheaper and opening access through scalable, online learning. HE needs to be more local or at least partly online, scalable and therefore cheaper, flexible and accessible.


There is little sign of the education system changing of its own volition in response to recent and dramatic political shifts. What is happening are economic and political shifts that are leading towards the need for a rebalance between the academic and vocational. Everything from populism to climate change is putting pressure on education to satisfy new demands, rather than the demands of older political structures. Sandel believes that political change must p[receed educational change, that remains to be realised.

Sandel is right in saying that the newer political movements did and do not invoke the ‘rhetoric of rising’, they went back to more local, national and personal values. It remains to be seen how change in Sandel’s direction will happen, if at all.


Sandel, M.J., 2020. The tyranny of merit: What’s become of the common good?. Penguin UK.

Sandel, M.J., 1998. Democracy's discontent: America in search of a public philosophy. Harvard university press.

Sandel, M.J. and Anne, T., 1998. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge University Press.

Holt (1923 - 85) homeschooling and unschooling

John Holt graduated from Yale in 1943 but signed up to be a submariner in WW2. On discharge, he eventually became a teacher, in various schools. This led to a disillusionment with the US education system so deep that he became an advocate for homeschooling and unschooling. This emerged from his belief that education was so deeply embedded, structurally and culturally, that it was unreformable. Neither did he believe that alternative schools were the answer. He retains his reputation as the founding father of homeschooling.


Schools, for Holt, dampen enthusiasm for learning and tend to produce conformity. What they need is not coercion and strict supervision but choices in what interests learners, what they want to follow within a resource-rich environment. His early books How Children Fail (1964) and How Children Learn (1967) laid the foundation for his scepticism about mainstream education, as well as pedagogic alternatives. This led him to encourage and support homeschooling. He founded Growing Without Schooling, the homeschooling newsletter, in 1977, also a bookstore for homeschoolers, and the classic text on the subject Teach Your Own (1981).

His diagnosis was that schools used the wrong pedagogic methods, relying on fear and conformity to push people into learning, rather than positive motivations such as curiosity and the development of enthusiasm and interests, that lead to lasting and useful learning. Teaching was not about fear of failure, criticism or the fear of appearing stupid but about building confidence, motivation and the environment to learn. Tests and exams, he thought, were dispiriting distractions from understanding concepts and the application of knowledge and skills. As end-points they encouraged teaching and learning to the test, then forgetting. He famously described schooling as a process whose end-product is ‘stupidity’.


Unschooling was a concept coined by Holt, as an antidote to school teaching and learning, as he felt ‘homeschooling’ suggested endless activities in the home, when children should, in fact be out in the community. He thought that his friend Illich’s ‘deschooling’ was too strong a term. On writing the book Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (1974) that promoted libertarian values, around the rights of children to vote, work, even chose their legal guardians, he followed it up with a practical guide for parents Instead of Education: Ways to Help People do Better (1976), which helped parents pull their children from the system. 

The learner is allowed to choose what, how and when they want to learn and from whom. The concept is almost wholly student-centred, as the learner must want to learn. This apples, he thinks, to learning at any age and he went on to develop it into a theory of lifelong learning, where he encouraged people to learn at any age, even through teaching their own children. Teach Your Own: The John Holt Manual on Homeschooling (1981) was a practical manual on homeschooling and unschooling, with its emphasis on learning, not teaching.


He has been criticised for not having a teaching degree, an advantage in the eyes of his many supporters, who saw this as providing objectivity and the ability to recognise that the system was unreformable. He has, in fact, been proved right on the unreformable nature of schools and schooling. They have remained relatively stable and similar since Holt’s time, so that basis for his argument that homeschooling is the only alternative, is sound.

Homeschooling is seen by some as an aberration. Yet the reasons for this choice vary from the religious and political, through to suffering some children experience at schools to the simple pedagogic choice by parents. Motivations differ as do methods. Many argue that excluding children from school excludes them from the culture and social context they need. The counter is that this is exactly why parents homeschool and that these children often get plenty of social interaction, not just in singe-cohort age-bands.


Holt remains a foundational figure in homeschooling. The fact that he came to teaching late and did not have a teaching degree has enhanced his reputation as someone who has a more sophisticated judgement about relevance. He was right in seeing schools as difficult, even unreformable and saw homeschooling as the rejection of that system. It has grown, not expansively, but steadily.


Holt, J. 1989. Learning all the time. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley

Holt, J. and Farenga, P., 1982. Teach your own. New York: Delta Trade Paperbacks..

Holt, J. 1976. Instead of Education

Holt, J. 1974. Escape from childhood

Holt, J., 1967, revised 2017. How children learn. Hachette UK.

Holt, J. and Fromme, A., 1982. How children fail London: Penguin.

Growing Without Schooling archive

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Butler (1956 - ) Queer Theory, performativity and parody

Judith Butler, is best known as the American writer and activist on Queer Theory, in area of sex, gender and sexuality, a theory that emerged from the postmodernist theories of Foucault and Derrida. It draws on Foucault’s interpretation of society as expressions of power through oppressive forces, in particular, the social construction of sexuality. She goes further in adopting the deconstructive techniques of Derrida to destabilise sex and gender categories. However, she denies even the term ‘postmodernist’ as yet another category that needs to be dismantled. In Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the question of Postmodernism (1995) she tries to take a position of extreme critical theory, where all is subject to critique, even the basis of the critical theory itself.

Queer Theory

Butler pushes to as position beyond the words and categories normally associated with male, female, man, woman, heterosexual and homosexual and so on. ‘To queer’ is the active process of disrupting traditional categories to free us from its oppressive language and meanings. ‘Queering’ is the activism associated with this activity, often taking subversive and disruptive forms, like drag-queens. Queer theory sees both gender and sex as socially constructed. Woman is a performance that constructs a form of gendered reality, what she calls gender ‘performativity’. 

Gender performativity

In Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (1993), she argues that ‘gender performativity’ brings into being, and reinforces through speech and reiteration, the fixed roles of sexuality. Gender is thus taught and learned by children and adults, from parents, in education and other social contexts. It is taught and reinforced by doing, through performative acts; behaviours, acts and speech. 

In her hugely influential book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), she asks us to believe that gender is the product of a mass delusion, an almost behaviourist plot, where people are carried along by what she calls ‘discursive construction’ to play out roles that perpetuate binary, gender roles; male-female, heterosexual-homosexual. Language represents oppression not reality. Activist Queer Theory must escape these linguistic and performative constraints. This requires us to break free from fixed, normative, oppressive categories and behaviours. Genders must multiply and proliferate to break loose from both heterosexual and, in particular, masculine norms or phallogocentrism (a term taken from Derrida) that refers to the privileged building of masculine meaning.

Performance of parody

This, for Butler, can only be done when we break up and disrupt the dominant performative norms and speech through the “subversive and parodic redeployment of power”. In acts like drag-queen performances, we introduce uncertainty and a degree of chaos into sexual matters, making people rethink their use of language and performativity. 

It is not just parody, as prescriptions on language use are also promoted, even to the level of legislative change, in an attempt to change what is allowed and not allowed. This has taken the form of changing the use of pronouns. You can see this in Butler’s Wikipedia page where Butler is referred to as ‘their’. The movement also uses a growing list of self-identification and activist terms such as LGTBQIA2S+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Two-Spirit, and others). Even biological sex is questioned under this dissolution of language. 


Butler is often impenetrable and self-consciously, esoteric academic prose (she won a well-known Bad Writing Competition) distances her from ordinary language and life. Attempts to change pronouns are linguistically naive and the language of gender-fluidity gets lost in the endless extension of the LGBTQXYZ+... acronym.

It is hard to take a philosophical system that needs drag-queens at its vanguard, seriously but that really is what Butler, who has been called the Professor of Parody, suggests. Just as unbelievable is the rejection of biological sex. Butler argues, absurdly in the view of almost all experts in medicine and biology, that gender and sex are distinct and uncorrelated. 

She uses postmodern techniques of deconstruction and turns this on the concept of ‘postmodernism’ itself. But in positioning Queer Theory as a critical approch to categories, normal language use and interpreted social and cultural phenomena, she pushes Queer Theory to the position of mere action and activism. There is no real defence of the theory as there is no fixity that can be defended. There is no certainty, boundaries or closure. This means that it clashes with defences of the feminist concept of ‘women’ as objects of oppression, also in the lesbian community, where female and lesbian are core concepts. Trans arguments that rely on that same binary language of transitioning from one fixed concept to another, can also be devalued. Queerness trumps all other categorised groups and becomes a theory for all and therefore none.

A theory that deconstructs its own methods, de-anchoring itself from any form of stable reality, wholly performative, yet dogmatic in its ability to form the basis for what everyone else should regard as new norms, including demands on new rules, rights and laws. Queer theory is indeed a very queer thing. 


Butler’s theories have influenced fields well beyond her core work on sex, gender and sexuality. Her approach has been taken into other areas of moral concern in disability studies, fat studies and decolonisation. Many see her work as deeply destructive, as the activism it produces has led to the policing of language and behaviour, an attack on free speech and a doctrinaire campus culture, where canceling can be the result of such strictures. Others use her theories to implement what they see as oppressive language and laws.


Butler, J., 2013. Contingent foundations: Feminism and the question of" postmodernism" (pp. 21-39). Routledge.

Butler, J., 2011. Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of sex. routledge.

Butler, J., 2002. Gender trouble. routledge.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Lyotard (1924-98) Postmodernism

Jean-François Lyotard coined the term ‘postmodern’ in The Postmodern Condition (1979). As a far-left activist and academic in France, Algeria and the US (in the Critical Theory department of the University of California, then Emory University) he explored the impact of postmodernity on a wide range of subjects; philosophy, epistemology, science, art, literature, film, music and culture. 

Knowledge and science

He is critical of claims that knowledge is truth. Knowledge is no longer to be trusted, as it is a slave to 'metanarratives'. As he denies ‘metanarratives’ such Enlightenment theories, also religious, Marxist and Freudian theories, even science, knowledge claims are therefore suspect. Science, in particular, he sees as a metanarrative that puts knowledge in the hands of power and politics, thereby shedding its claim to objectivity. Faith in science, as he explains in Inhuman (1988) legitimises the digital capture of knowledge and therefore faith in technology. Following Wittgenstein, his programme is to see language as ‘language games’.


His alternatives to ‘metanarratives’ are personal ‘mini-narratives’ that reduce knowledge to personal experience. Objective, empirical evidence is trumped by lived experience, so that the mini-narratives of individuals and groups are placed above those of science, general ethics or society as a whole.

Knowledge, for Lyotard, changes with dominant narratives. The Enlightenment narratives of objectivity, truth are no longer applicable. This, he thinks, has caused a crisis in knowledge, as it has been commercialised, creating tensions between rich and poor,  private sector and state.  

We see in Lyotard an explicit epistemic relativism (belief in personal or culturally specific truths or facts) and the advocacy of privileging ‘lived experience’ over empirical evidence. We also see the promotion of a version of pluralism which privileges the views of minority groups over the general consensus of scientists or liberal, democratic ethics which are presented as authoritarian and dogmatic. This is consistent in postmodern thought.


His attack on science as a metanarrative doesn’t really explain why the scientific method, with falsification lacks legitimacy or what scientific knowledge has been delegitimised. It is a failure to recognise that many of the meta-narratives postmodernists criticise have methods that allow them to examine, even themselves, as they are themselves sceptical about claims claiming to be absolute truths and at least have processes of self-correction.

It is as if the progress we’ve made since the Enlightenment didn’t exist, that there was no Reformation, French Revolution, secular progress, no progression towards liberal democracies and values. Postmodernism doesn’t have a monopoly on emancipation, many of the advances made in the 60s and 70s were prior to Postmodernism, not caused by it. Indeed that was not just the well-spring but theoretical basis upon which such progress was made, the very progress that allows the current generation of critical theorists to think and act for themselves.

Worse still, it destroys all possible methods of discussion, debate and disagreement, the foundations of liberal democracy, there is no arguing with it. All common ground or methods of falsification have disappeared or are interpreted as powerplays. It has donned all the defensiveness of the metanarratives it purports to despise.


Lyotard, J.F., 1984. The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge (Vol. 10). U of Minnesota Press.

Pluckrose, H. and Lindsay, J.A., 2020. Cynical theories: How activist scholarship made everything about race, gender, and identity—and why this harms everybody. Pitchstone Publishing (US&CA).

Derrida (1930 - 2004) deconstruction and difference

Jaques Derrida has an entire vocabulary of new terms, which he invents or qualifies in his philosophy. One should say ‘texts’ as he saw Western thought and culture as being dominated by speech, so chose the elevation of the written word, importantly and oddly, as seen separately from its author. Rejecting the phenomenology of Husserl and the focus on consciousness and sense-data, of which speech is a part, he sees traditional philosophy as being tied to the language of speech, as opposed to writing. It is to texts that he applies his famous method of deconstruction.


To say, as he did in Of Grammatology (1967) that there is nothing outside of the text, on first appearance, seems ridiculous. The Holocaust is not a text. What he meant was not the text itself but something beyond but what that beyond is, remains problematic, as Derrida refuses to engage in much interrogation of his terms.

Derrida takes critical theory down, away from larger narratives, groups or individuals to language itself. His ‘deconstruction’ looks at the ambiguity of texts, de-anchored from reality, even their authors. Meaning is down to differences. When it comes to meaning, as determined by ‘difference’, he often sees opposition as too universal a definition. 

Derrida turns Structuralism in on itself by de-anchoring structures and denying the objectivity of science and reality. Like many in the Critical Theory tradition, he ‘deconstructs’ the large metaphysical and secular narratives but through the deconstruction of texts. Derrida uses the term diffĂ©rance in two senses both ‘to defer’ and ‘to differ.’ This was to indicate that not only is meaning never final but it is constructed by differences, specifically by oppositions.


He refuses to define or even defend concepts but it is not clear that concepts such as ‘difference’, which he defines rather confusingly as both deference and difference, are of any relevance in education and learning. As his writing moved further into wordplay, playing around with prefixes and salacious references to death and sex, it drove him further away from being in any way relevant to education, teaching and learning theory, apart from literary theory. 

Deconstruction of texts is his method of instruction but his only method of instruction. Ultimately it is an inward looking technique that cannot escape its own gravity. No amount of debate can produce enough escape velocity to deny the results of deconstruction.

Avoiding the reality of even speech, restricts debate to texts. Yet it is not clear that education is what he calls speech or ‘phonocentric’ and his evidence for this is vague and unconvincing. His denial of oppositional thought, which he tries to deconstruct through reversal, denies biological distinction like gender and the persistence of a subject in relation to objective reality. It becomes an excuse for avoiding debate by reducing the other person’s views as a vague text. It matters not what your intention was, only what was said.


With Derrida we are at the tail-end of critical theory, where the object of criticism is reduced to texts and methods at the level of the ironic. His impact on education has been almost nil, as there is little that had enough force or meaning to have impact. Having rejected all Enlightenment values, large narratives, even speech, Derrida’s postmodernism is its own end in itself. His reputation merley lives on in the self-referential pomposity that postmodernism created, mostly limited to academia and even there only in a subset of the humanities, where spoof papers that mimic its vagueness and verbosity have been regularly accepted for publication.


Derrida, J., 2001. Writing and difference. Routledge.
Derrida, J., 1998. Of grammatology (p. 456). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Derrida, J., 1982. Margins of philosophy. University of Chicago Press.

Foucault (1926 - 84) - Structuralism

Michel Foucault had an enormous impact on critical theory and because of this, education as taught in Universities. From the 1980s onwards his ideas infused everything, apart from actual practice. As one of the structuralist Gang of Four, with Levi-Strauss, Barthes and Lacan, he is difficult to pigeon-hole, as his writing is often obtuse, abstruse and conceptually difficult. Despite this and recent revelations of paedophilia, he remains a towering figure in critical theory as expressed in the structuralist movement.


Foucault’s archaeology of culture uncovers power structures, ‘epistemes’ that dominate, define and control all knowledge. The individual, their movements, behaviours, interests, desires and even bodies are merely the subject of imposed, oppressive, power relationships. Cultural relativism emerges as individuals are subsumed and emerge as oppressors and the oppressed. Foucault sees philosophy as in need of the decolonisation of even time, space and subjectivity, through the wholescale rejection of Eurocentric norms and language. This postmodern destruction of boundaries led to cultural relativism, certain forms of language as epistemically constructive and power plays between groups, not individuals or universal principles. It places gender, race and other distinctions into cultural contexts where the application of power socially constructs and uses language to oppress certain groups. 

Discipline and Punish

His early interest in mental illness and psychiatry led to the book Madness and Civilisation (19XX). This fits into the Critical Theory tradition of seeing society as pathological. But it is in Discipline and Punish (19XX) that the idea of ‘training’, in the wider sociological sense of the word, is exposed as stages of domination in society, moving into schools and systems of education. Learning becomes institutionalised through a shadow form of monastic enclosure, where the architecture of the school follows that of the Panopticon prison. Supervision and the serial delivery of classes in separate rooms, marching from one room to another room, with teachers policing the formal restrictions of movement and behaviour, result in strictly timetabled control. Designed for prescriptive supervision, the building is a ’pedagogical machine’ that reduces the individual to a documented object. Examinations bring this form of supervision to a head, with the labeling of subjects before release.


This shift to seeing education in terms of power relations has been influential. Yet in a democracy, where citizens vote on the major issues of the economy, health and education, the idea that everyone is deluded into playing the role of imprisoned lackeys, seems far-fetched. Critical thinking when expressed at this level seems to tip over into abstruse political theory disassociated from the reality, wishes and needs of most people. Additionally, it sets up a form of intellectual snobbery, where academics see themselves as the true arbiters of what is important and what is emancipatory.

Few solutions are offered in his critiques. This is a general problem in Critical Theory. Foucault’s idea of power is problematic in being relentlessly negative, the exercise of oppression, not liberation. It is all very well drawing parallels between prisons and schools, and there is some wisdom in being sceptical about the formalities of supervision and Victorian architecture, however, most want to see sensible behaviour management and the applications of restrictions necessary for attention and education. To caricature school supervision as ideologically driven punishment, is just that,  a caricature. 

Foucault’s idea of power, a core concept in critical theory and structuralism, is that it is always assumed to be a deficit or negative, a flow of oppression. Yet power, in both politics and education, can be used positively, to free and liberate. The problem with de-anchoring everything is that you also de-anchor yourself and your own theories, setting everything adrift.


His influence on modern thought, philosophy and critical theory in academia is undoubtedly enormous. His influence on educational and learning theory is, however,  oft quoted but minimal and seldom applied. After his death in 1984 his reputation was strengthened as critical theory became a dominant force in the humanities, especially in degrees which critics jokingly call ‘Grievance Studies’. While recent theorists on feminism, gender studies, queer theory (Butler), race, post-colonialism (Said, Spivak) and, even Fat studies (Bacon), all draw on Foucault’s epistemic relativism, theorists in Critical Race Theory and Feminim, such as Angela Harris and Kimberle Crenshaw, have at least been consistent in rejecting Foucault and Derrida, which would have shocked them, as prime examples of oppressive white men and Eurocentric theory.


Foucault M. Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, 1961.Abridged; translated by R. Howard. London: Tavistock (1965)

Foucault M. Archaeology of Knowledge 1961. Translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith. London: Routledge (2002)

Foucault M. Discipline and Punish  The Birth of the Prison 1971

Foucault M. The History of Sexuality 1976 - 84 Vol I: The Will to Knowledge, Vol II: The Use of Pleasure, Vol III: The Care of the Self, Vol IV: The Confessions of the Flesh

Giraux (1943 - ) put Critical Pedagogy on the map

Henry Giroux, who moved from being a high-school social studies teacher to Professor at Penn State University, then to McMasters University in Canada, takes Critical Theory and applies it to Critical Pedagogy, drawing on the Frankfurt School, Habermas and Freire. Some attribute the very concept of ‘Critical Pedagogy’ to him. For Giroux, this is a force for political good and emancipation that will defend liberal democracy against undemocratic forces of power and dominance.

Education shadows powerful ideologies and is therefore repressive, protected by structures that make it impervious to criticism and an unwitting vehicle of oppression. He is therefore in favour of critical democracy that includes critiques of ideologies such as authoritarianism, capitalism and neoliberalism. Universities he also sees as being under the chains of these forces.

Critical/Radical Pedagogy

Schools, or rather schooling, is a vehicle for cultural reproduction rather than cultural production. As part of an active democracy they should, in response, adopt a critical role in their pedagogy, to reach out beyond the perpetuation of injustices and inequalities. Education’s role is to critique the ideologies of oppression. 

Giraux sees learning as a critical process in the public area of education and beyond, not with a destructive but constructive and forward-looking intent. It must respond to increasing diversity and strive to reduce inequalities. The overall goal is to encourage emancipatory citizenship. His is a denial of Enlightenment and other ideologies in favour of the voices of the oppressed, accompanied by personal and political citizenship in a radical democracy. Pedagogy, for Giroux, is political. Schooling, its purposes, methods and malign cultural influences, must be subject to critical thought, even the curricula. This pedagogy is not just critical but radical in moving things to what ought to be in a democratic society.

Border Pedagogy

His Critical/Radical Pedagogy goes further into practices that explore, even cross, borders and boundaries in education. This blurring and crossing of boundaries allows education to evolve towards fairness and equality. Everything should be examined; the nature of knowledge itself, power within institutions, diversity, curricula. In Postmodern, Feminism and Cultural Politics (1991) he questions Eurocentric theory, the language we use and adopts a Lyotardian view of knowledge, as being corrigible. 


Giroux has been criticised from both the left and right. His Critical Pedagogy seems like a convenient way of pulling in Marxist influenced, political beliefs into the sphere of education, as it is more critically ‘cultural’ than ‘educational’. It is not at all clear that education plays this role in a democracy, where the population vote for educational policies, not for those policies and structures to be critiqued but implemented. 

Critical theorists and feminists such as Ellsworth, race theorists like Ford and Marxists such as Malott, criticise him for being too soft on and therefore compatible with capitalism. A general criticism of both Critical Theory and Critical/Radical Pedagogy, is that they are simply the esoteric concerns of the academic class, rather than any form of relevant, practical or applicable teaching and learning theory or practice.


Giroux put Critical Pedagogy on the map. Whether it has ever come off the map onto the rocky roads of real life education is debatable. Much debated, his influence is largely on the activist and not mainstream side of teaching. His turn towards Postmodernism may have made him even more distant from the realities of actual education. nevertheless, with the rise of critical theory on campuses and in schools, his work is receiving new attention by a new audience.

Giroux, H.A., 2020. On critical pedagogy. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Giroux, H.A., 2018. Pedagogy and the politics of hope: Theory, culture, and schooling: A critical reader. Routledge.

Giroux, H.A., 1991. Postmodernism, feminism, and cultural politics: Redrawing educational boundaries. Suny Press

Giroux, H.A., Freire, P. and McLaren, P., 1988. Teachers as intellectuals: Toward a critical pedagogy of learning. Greenwood Publishing Group.