What is education for? This key question still elicits puzzled looks, ill-formed answers, even platitudes, from students, parents, policy makers and even learning professionals. Few can fully articulate the purpose of education. John White has clear views on the subject that escapes the usual formulations to focus on the idea of autonomy. A product of London’s Institute of Education, he asks what we should do in a world where the old certainties of religion and a job for life are gone. How should we define education in a more liberal, complex, fragmented and technological world?
To avoid the trap of instrumentalism, seeing education as a slave to the state and employment, as well as the woolly thinking around education as a good in itself, White uses a concept that combines the needs of learner but also links directly to the needs of a democratic society. That concept is autonomy.
Autonomy, not reason or any other end, is chosen, as it defines, in terms of the self, what one must learn to be a fully functional adult in a complex world. In this sense it avoids the narrow strictures of an inflexible, over-academic curriculum, but it widens education out to deal with the individual as a rounded functioning being. The learner needs to avoid being the slave to desire but also being a slave to a given authority.
Always wary of unreflective existence, a theme going back to the Greeks, he is keen to encourage a reflective form of autonomy that is in line with our responsibilities to ourselves and others.
In Beyond the National Curriculum he attacked the narrow, prescriptive definition of a curriculum, based not on evidence but the personal prejudices of politicians, a debate not unfamiliar in our own times. His alternative is an education that promotes rational, freedom of choice. The curriculum therefore needs to foster moral, intellectual, financial and practical autonomy to allow people to lead happy, healthy, lives, form relationships, cook, find jobs and think for themselves. He is critical of current schooling, based as it is on flawed theories of intelligence, and like Illich sees a strong Calvinist tradition as lying at the root of our overly-academic curriculum, along with the political influence of highly selective schools. He is just as critical of the fuzzy thinking behind Gardner’s ‘multiple intelligences’.
Neither does he shy away from work as an important topic in education. In ‘Education and the End of Work’ he assumes a more fragmented, work environment where too narrow vocational training will leave learners ill-equipped to deal with the future. We must educate for the ability to cope with the changes that the future will bring. This is, in some ways, the weakness of his reliance on autonomy alone. It can break down when it comes to detailed policy and prescription. James Tooley was to pick up on White’s work, again using Rawls Theory of justice in a thought experiment in Reclaiming Education, where he imagines us starting again, to choose an optimal educational system. White and Tooley draw on deeper philosophical though to guide their thinking, a refreshing approach, compared to sometimes shallower prescriptions based on personal experience.
White draws on analytic philosophy to ask a tough question to come up with a sophisticated answer. He succeeds in placing ‘autonomy’ at the heart of educational thinking and planning, and his approach is grounded and useful in that it is not linked to a specific political or cultural outlook. The concept of autonomy can be seen a universal good, linked to the individual, strong enough to define curricula and choices yet flexible enough to cope with a changing future.
White, J. (1973). Towards a compulsory curriculum. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
White, J. (1982). The Aims of Education Restated. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
White, J. (1994). Education and Personal Well-Being in a Secular Universe. London. University of London Institute of education.
White, J. (1997). Education and the end of Work. London: Cassell.