Review: A Philosophy of Schooling by Dr Julian Stern

Review and Welcome of A Philosophy of Schooling by Dr Julian Stern(1)

This is the ‘welcome’ to Julian Stern’s thought-provoking book that I gave at meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain at Leeds Trinity University on 20th March 2018, at which the book was launched.

This book celebrates and explores the role of school as a public institution which works with and through persons – helping to mediate, as Julian puts it, between the family and the larger world of adult life. This work takes this school role seriously, something which is increasingly necessary in a policy context which tends to see schools rather as providers of educational services, with the imagined simplification of the relationships that such a concept of service entails.  In this context our work has been conceptually simplified and procedurally complicated. Our pupils have become the sum of their parts, or of their scores in tests, of measurements of their capacity to learn, their attitude to school, their behaviour.

Julian sets out to explore the complexities in the relationships within school, and the attitudes of care and community that underlie such relationships. Along the way we also examine how external relationships and sources of power and accountability impact on the community of care within the school.   Such scope and ambition could easily either lead to broad-brush strokes, that obscure with swagger, or to minutiae in which one loses the thread.  The feat of this book is that this does not happen.  We see the big picture, but this picture rests on detail.

Far from giving us ‘apoplexia philosopica’ (which Julian explains as the attempt or tendency of thinkers to avoid death by avoiding real life), this book delves deftly and generously into the ‘real’ of school life.  For instance there is courteously expressed criticism of others’ ideas, which are never dismissed, but which are developed or used as a departure. The dialogue between these criticisms and Julian’s own ideas and experiences is generative rather than reductive, and becomes more so as the book continues.

The breadth of Julian’s reading, and the interleaving of this with his experience working in and with schools and teachers, is the basis on which the work stands.  It is also the ground from which it grows. His knowledge and clear explanation of the work of Noddings, Macmurray, Buber and hook is woven with that of classical and enlightenment philosophers. The generosity of this approach is that it does not exclude, and does not obscure. We are given enough to work alongside Julian on these ideas – and encouraged to mirror the dialogue between the philosophy and experience in the same way that the book does.  In framing the work in this way Dr Stern seems to invite us, to stop and think about how our experiences fit with the arguments being made.

One, for me, startling example of this is the event which seems to have started Julian’s career as a researcher and philosopher.  We’re told about a throwaway remark by his headteacher that Julian was working “for him”, rather than working “for the school” or “for the pupils” or “for the community”.  In exploring the way that teachers and pupils in schools thought about leadership, this was a departure for research that ultimately led to the book we are hearing about today.

Every now and then when I’m reading a book I have to stop, put the book down, take in the scene around me and think about the line, sentence or paragraph I’ve read. This was one of those moments for me, because it so closely resembled my own departure, not only towards a career in education but not in the classroom, but also the start of a process that led to my departure from the school in which I had spent most of my professional life working.  For me it was a speech night in which the incoming new headteacher referred to our school as ‘my school’.

There are other such echoes in this book of what are very common experiences of many classroom practitioners.  In particular the argument that there has sometimes been a false dichotomy between authenticity and performance in writing and thinking about teaching speaks loudly to those of us who know that performance is a necessary part of a teacher’s and a leader’s repertoire. We also know that it is the purposes of such performance that matter: teachers who perform to gain compliance or cover over tracks or cracks have different intentions to those who do it to inspire curiosity and care.

I also recognised the discussion about the nature of school subjects and the role they play in the work of teaching. In a small attempt to join in the discussion I’d like to offer a brief thought about the nature of the curriculum and my related experience, before returning to sum up why this book is so welcome.

Chapter 8 explores the ways that curricula dualism, putting up divides in the form of subjects, and separating school experience from the rest of life, can distort learning.  This chapter suggests that subject driven schooling might ‘make it harder for children to learn in the muddled and multifaceted way typical of non-school-life’.  I wonder if we could avoid dualism by considering how subjects enhance and enable this type of learning, especially considering the ways that children’s learning might change over the life of their schooling and beyond.  Earlier in the book you consider the mediating role that school plays between family and the wider adult world.  I wonder how you respond to the hope that school could also mediate between everyday informal learning and the structuring concepts provided by subjects and subject communities?  Indeed might subjects help us to care about the world by helping us see beyond our immediate circumstances and immediate responses?

In avoiding extremes, in taking others’ ideas seriously enough to critique them, this work reminds me of Isaiah Berlin’s essay ‘the Pursuit of the Ideal’(2).  In this essay Berlin tries to find ways in which we can steer through the ideological storms – the Utopian thought, hard positions and ‘isms’ which inspired and terrified during the 20th Century.  It seems to me that, of late, schools and those who learn and work in them have become victims of schemes based on Utopian thought. Some politicians, some school leaders have pressed the case for ultimate values, ultimate ends of education and promoted means that fail to treat pupils and teachers as ends in themselves.  Berlin counselled against solutions that always apply, against the idea that all good is naturally compatible in all contexts.  He argued instead that ‘priorities, never final and absolute must be established’.

This book is so clear, so structured, so secure and well argued in its underlying philosophy and values that it ends with a 9 point manifesto which perfectly matches and is coherent with the 9 chapters that precede it.  Given this, it is remarkable that the book also avoids becoming a simple set of answers to the question ‘what is to be done’.  The manifesto is structured around important qualifications, such as ‘sometimes’, which serve to illustrate the reality of working and learning in schools.  In other words, the book makes serious demands of leaders, teachers and pupils, but also recognises the difficulties in meeting them.

In short Julian gives us ‘priorities, never final and absolute’ and an affirmation and celebration of the care, curiosity and hope which we should tap into when going about our work as educators.

A Philosophy of Schooling – Care and Curiosity in Community | Julian Stern | Palgrave Macmillan. Accessed March 21, 2018. //

Berlin, Isaiah. The Crooked Timber Of Humanity. Random House, 2012.

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