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Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 43, No. 2, 2009

Philosophy of Education and Economics:

A Case for Closer Engagement


Relatively little contemporary philosophy of education employs economic concepts directly. Even where issues such as marketisation of education are discussed there may be little clarification of underlying concepts. The paper argues that while much contemporary economic thinking on education may be philosophically naive, it is also the case that philosophy of education can productively engage with particular economic insights and perspectives. The paper examines particular conceptualisations of ‘economics’ and ‘the market’, drawing upon these to consider aspects of an issue that is significant for the philosophy of education: human becoming. An example, the notion of ‘wellbeing’ is briefly discussed.


First thoughts about this paper were triggered by two personal experiences, both of which occurred at philosophy of education conferences. First, at the annual conference of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain in 2004 a keynote speaker referred frequently to ‘market values’. It should be said that the keynote paper itself was well received, that the audience appeared to know exactly what the speaker meant, and that wider discourse would suffer considerably if the use of shorthand phases such as this were to be subject to over-close policing. Nevertheless, it also seems important to register the objection that, in fact, markets do not, and cannot, have values. People have values. They may attach some of their values to particular markets, or to the idea of a market in general. More or less certainly, they will express their values, at particular places and times, through their participation in markets. But there is no value that is intrinsic to markets, other than perhaps, as Amartya Sen (1999) points out, a propensity to engage in exchange that is inherent in any credible account of what it is to live as a human being. Secondly, at the European Conference on Educational Research in 2006 I decided to attend a session of the Educational Economics Network. The number of those present was very small compared both to the sessions of the parallel Philosophy of Education Network, and to the size of the

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conference as a whole. Those individuals who had come along were considering whether their network should continue or fold. However, this in no way indicated that they had somehow resigned themselves to the irrelevance of economics to education in the modern world. Rather, they were asking themselves whether it made sense to attend education conferences—within which their thinking, perhaps most particularly in relation to markets, was clearly of marginal interest—when they might just as well attend economics conferences, at which their assumptions and methodologies would be accepted as mainstream, and through which their arguments and findings might ultimately be significantly more influential. In response to these experiences, this paper considers relationships between some aspects of economic thinking and some aspects of philosophy of education. It is necessarily selective, and often necessarily summary in its treatment of long-standing, widely discussed and meticulously argued traditions of thought. Its purpose is to suggest that these disciplines have something to offer each other in relation to some of their established intellectual concerns. Of course, to say that economics and philosophy are interrelated is uncontroversial, but the literature that discusses the relationship also identifies particular difficulties. For example, Julian Le Grand notes: ‘A striking imbalance between, in the case of the philosophers, the depth of philosophical argument and the cursory treatment of its practical implications, and, in the case of the economists, the sophistication of the economic analysis and the shallowness of its philosophical base’ (Le Grand, 1991, p. 3). Geoffrey Hodgson makes a very similar point:

Things go awfully wrong for science when:

(1) unwarranted policy claims are made for theoretical analysis (2) a jump is made from the theoretical to the normative without adequate consideration of questions of feasibility and mechanisms of implementation (Hodgson, 2006, p. 6).

A particular concern of this paper, therefore, is that of simultaneously attending to both the ‘philosophical base’ and ‘practical implications’ of educational activity.


The above suggests that a philosopher of education might want to engage with economic ideas as a way of considering the practicalities of a particular philosophical position, or as a way of assisting economists in conceptualising their work. A second, more straightforward possibility is that some work in economics touches directly upon the concerns of philosophy of education, though, quite clearly, much of it does not. Among mainstream economists there are many today who would describe their discipline as ‘the science of choice’. Given that this is so it is unsurprising if, as already noted, non-economists tend to identify economics with markets, and markets, in turn, with the underlying

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assumptions about the nature of human beings that mainstream economists typically make. While I will argue in what follows that there may be instances in which philosophers of education might usefully engage with economic thinking of even this narrow type, we should note that this definition of the discipline is rejected by a number of eminent economists. For example, Hodgson (2004) notes a tendency on the part of mainstream economists simply to dismiss any approach not based on personal utility maximisation as ‘not economics’. This has the effect of excluding not only the work of Friedrich Hayek and Amartya Sen—both of whom are further discussed below—but also Marx, Malthus, and at least some aspects of that of the ancestor of neoclassical economics himself, David Ricardo (Hodgson, 2006). Also from within the discipline Blaug (1997) has complained that mainstream economics has developed in ways that render it little more than an intellectual game, with no grip on the real implications of analysis. We should note therefore, in the context of the present discussion, and notwithstanding the remarks of Le Grand (1991) above, that the power of economics to assist in engaging philosophical understandings with practical applications cannot always and everywhere be taken for granted. By way of further examples: 2008 Nobel Laureate in Economics Paul Krugman (1994, in a chapter wittily entitled In the Long Run Keynes is Still Alive) proposes the heterodox notion that perfect rationality is itself economically irrational; 2001 Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz (2002) has famously challenged conventional economic wisdom in relation to globalisation; and, more recently, economists such as William Jackson (2007) have built on the work of Hodgson and others to theorise the social structures that underlie markets. For the purposes of this paper ‘economics’ is defined inclusively, following Hodgson: ‘Sciences should not be defined by their methods or assumptions, but by their objects of analysis. Economics should thus be the science of the economy’ (Hodgson, 2006, p. 1). This might be taken to mean that economics is the study of how human beings survive through productive interaction with their environment. However, there is an irony here. To say that mainstream economics is incomplete is not to say that it can explain nothing. On the contrary, it is often very good at explaining things—current prices for example—that matter a great deal in the here and now. In Banquo’s words it may:

Win us with honest trifles, to betray ’s In deepest consequence ( Macbeth, 1.3.132).

One thing that neoclassical economics explains very well is its own tendency—noted above by Hodgson—to exclude all other economic perspectives from the canon of ‘economics’. Controlling entry to a profession is an ancient and effective way of raising the earnings and status of those within it or, in economic terminology, of obtaining economic rent. In this section we have noted that economics, at least in the definition here preferred, may properly concern itself with non-market-focused

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matters. Nevertheless, much economics is in fact focused on markets, and markets have featured prominently in recent debates about education. It is therefore to a consideration of markets that the paper now turns.


According to Robert Nozick, ‘The market is an institutional process whereby individual actions and plans are coordinated’ (Nozick, 2001, p. 284). This definition uncovers the apparently simple heart of the concept, and also points in a salutary way to the reason why markets are so ubiquitous. Coordinating individual actions and plans turns out to be a task of almost unimaginable complexity, even in relation to apparently simple goods. For example, when I buy a shirt, its price, relative not only to the prices of other shirts but also to prices of other goods or services I might buy instead of a shirt, summarises information about the preferences of other people relative to my own, global raw material and capital-goods prices, international wage levels, international regulation of production and its enforcement at the local level, transport costs, the relative prices of other goods that might be produced using the same inputs, taxation structures and levels in different countries, and more besides. This extraordinary power of markets to coordinate individual actions and plans deserves serious recognition. However, at least three distinct (though frequently confused) issues arise. The first is whether the market can be trusted to perform this coordinating function properly. Might there, for example, be instances of inefficient transmission of information, exercise of monopoly power or plain criminality within the supply chain for (some) shirts? Questions of this sort invoke the well-known concept of ‘market failure’. However, it is one thing to agree on the existence of market failure in a particular case, and quite another to decide what should be done about it. Depending on our disposition we might decide: that we want nothing whatever to do with markets; that the market is failing only because it contains certain imperfections that can and should be removed; that the market should have a limited role and be subject to some kind of correction; that the market enables us to make the best of a bad job: or, that while the job might not be perfect it is actually rather good all the same. So, for example, we find disagreement between James Tooley (2003) and Harry Brighouse (2004) over (among other things) whether equality of opportunity in education would be best served by increasing marketisation or restricting it. The second issue for markets-as-coordinators-of-plans is more funda- mental. Is it really safe to assume that all the relevant ‘plans and actions’ are individual ones? And even if we can confidently answer this in the affirmative in relation to the production of shirts, can we extend that confidence to the provision of education? Many think not. For example, Geoff Whitty warns against approaches that ’define education as a private good rather than a public issue and make education decision-making a matter of consumer choice rather than citizen rights’ (Whitty, 2002, p. 47).

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Yet at the same time we should note that commentators as differing in their perspectives as Tooley and Brighouse share a view that markets should not be wholly excluded from educational provision because they provide protection against the treatment of individuals simply as means to collective ends (Tooley, 2003). There are questions of both a practical and a philosophical nature concerning individual and collective participation in society as this occurs through markets. In respect of both the foregoing issues, it is clear that any final judgement requires an appeal to deeper issues that underlie the operation of markets. In both cases, the economics of the market leads us to philosophical questions. The third issue is rather different. Returning briefly once more to the market in shirts, we may say that even if there is general agreement that individual actions and plans are being appropriately coordinated, this cannot automatically be taken to mean that shirt production is happening in ways consistent with the national interest, environmental conservation, poverty eradication, human rights in the workplace, the enhancement of human wellbeing, or any number of other aspirational goals that might seem to be significantly more important, in the absolute, than whether I myself have a shirt to wear at all. This is partly a further consequence of the existence of collective actions and plans. However, it is also because such aspirations require us to accept the possibility that human actions and plans might in future become different from, and qualitatively better than, the ones we commonly exhibit at present. We might see this as simply a wider example of a well-established educational problem: that of bringing learners to acceptance of a new way of thinking when all they have available to them to evaluate it is the old way of thinking (Schwab, 1978; Reid, 1999). In what follows it is assumed that, in the modern world, education of all kinds is likely to be (at least) frequently associated with qualitative aspirations for educators and learners that go beyond the straightforward substitution of one generation of social actors by the next. Therefore, and for example, we may wish to educate young people about the evils of the sweatshops that make cheap shirts possible. We may wish further to promote a wider vision of a better, more egalitarian future. Doing so (and, let me say, I believe we should do so) raises a number of interesting questions. One of these—not necessarily the most important— concerns the likely actual impacts through markets of changing under- standings in this way. It cannot be regarded as a matter of complete irrelevance to the educational case if former sweatshop workers subsequently starve as production is shifted elsewhere, or consumers fund the extra cost of shirts through reductions in charitable giving, or parents transfer their children to private education to correct for perceived inappropriateness in the curriculum. An understanding of the short-term workings of markets is likely to be helpful if more philosophical judgements are to bear educational fruit. However, a fuller, more sophisticated account of economic processes would be still more useful, and it is therefore surprising that the narrow version is dominant. I now turn to a discussion of possible reasons for this.

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Taking a broad view (for there are exceptions to, and quibbles about, almost any general claim one might make in this regard) neoclassical economics has achieved a status as the most influential social scientific discipline in policy terms through application of a particular model. Central to this model is the belief that rational free choice in the market leads to Pareto optimality—that is (again broadly speaking, for there are a number of variations on this theme), a situation in which no reallocation can make anyone better off without making someone else worse off. Neoclassical approaches depart from the ‘classical’ economics of, say, Adam Smith in two key respects that are both of some significance for our continuing discussion of education. One is their emphasis on utility as the basis of value. The other is their focus on marginal, rather than absolute, valuations as the basis of choice. We should note that the status of individual utility seems to be an interesting issue (at the very least) within the work of pro-marketisation commentators such as Tooley, who writes:

Real education businesses—the sort I will defend here—do exist ‘to serve the best interests of schoolchildren’ and their families, as well as their shareholders. If they are not serving the interests of children then they will go out of business. The only way they can make profits for their owners is if they provide high-quality educational services (Tooley, 2000, p. 19).

On this account the ‘best interests of schoolchildren’ collectively equate to the aggregate of individual best interests as expressed through the market. Debate on this point has been engaged within the philosophy of education, notably in the debate between Tooley and Brighouse already mentioned. I do not wish to comment further upon it, except to reiterate that this is not the only relevant form in which economic considerations may manifest themselves. With regard to the second distinguishing feature of neoclassicism identified above, the emphasis on choice-making at the margin provides one compelling explanation of the success of neoclassical approaches. It is powerful as a descriptive and predictive tool because it recognises that human choice normally occurs in relation to incremental gains or losses rather than the absolute value of things. Most famously perhaps, this explains why water is often cheap and diamonds are pretty-much-always expensive, though the former is clearly absolutely more valuable than any quantity of the latter. It also explains, for example, why pupil absenteeism in English schools rises at the ends of terms, since this reflects not an absolute valuation of skiing (say) above education, but a preference for a relatively large increment of fun over what may be perceived as a relatively small addition to learning. Given this, and also that—whatever one thinks of utilitarianism—people do quite often do things (as opposed to stating intentions, attitudes, moral principles or, even, academic arguments) consistent with a fairly narrow account of their own self- interest, we might suggest that the success of (particularly neoclassical)

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economics in the social policy marketplace derives substantially from its focus on how people are in particular circumstances, rather than on how they could or should be in general. One consequence of this focus on the actual and the particular is that the distinction between needs and wants becomes analytically redundant. People’s choices reflect their reality. For philosophy of education, and educational theory more widely, things can never be this simple, it seems. Richard Pring has written:

No wonder there is suspicion of researchers when there is an appeal to ‘the social construction of knowledge’ or to ‘the multiple rationalities of the learner’ or to ‘subjective meaning of the learners’ or to ‘the personal construct of truth’. So much flies in the face of common sense understandings of the problem and its solution. And as the researchers embrace with enthusiasm and uncritically the latest ‘ism’ (such as ‘postmodernism’) so the gulf between researcher and teacher is even more unbridgeable (Pring, 2000, p. 6).

I myself have worked with teachers who found the concept of

postmodernism useful, but even so we may say that, by and large, economists have a head start to the extent that they begin from the problems that people believe themselves to have. This same point is strengthened by the existence in economics (not only neoclassical economics) of a further basic concept, the implications of which can only be ignored in an applied area such as education at the cost of complete (if sometimes unwitting) loss of sense. This is ‘opportunity cost’, which tells us that nothing is free. Rather, anything we might do has costs

in terms of foregone alternatives. Decisions about the future have costs in

the present, and these will be evaluated in the present. Hence, educational commitments proposed by education academics and policy-makers with a view to bringing about long-term changes in social values, aspirations or behaviours will be judged against the alternatives by those persons targeted, in the present, in the light of their existing values, aspirations and behaviours. Economics provides a sophisticated set of tools for making

such judgements with rigour. Whatever the ultimate philosophical, or even the long-term economic, reality of the case there will be a tendency for contemporary economic analysis smoothly to align with contemporary ‘common sense’, while educational philosophy may sometimes appear uncomfortably at odds with it. However, a focus on the issue of how people might become in the future leads us to ask what scope there might be, within a neoclassical account of education-as-market-good, for the development of the learner. Since the information-set best able to inform rational choice within this framework must be that already possessed by the child (or parent), the potential would appear to be quite limited. This will not do, because learners do develop. This brings us to the question of how they do so.

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As soon as economics is freed from narrow, exclusive neoclassical definitions, and our wider definition adopted, engagement with philoso- phical questions becomes more common. The reason for this seems to be particularly linked to the question of human becoming, and so to education or, at least, to learning. For mainstream economists, it is a powerful and useful—if limiting—working assumption that the structure of human preferences remains constant. For educationalists and philosophers it is usually really rather important that such preferences are to some degree malleable. In fact, at any particular moment in time both these assumptions will be true. Particular values or behaviours may be so entrenched as to be inescapable axioms of today’s policy decisions; and yet, at the same time, all the evidence tells us that even these most unquestioned and unquestionable features of the social landscape mutate over time. That social dispositions will change is one of the few things of which we can be absolutely certain. How they change matters for our future selves, and for our children: but it also matters now because we want to believe that our lives have lasting results. One possible perspective on this situation is that of Amartya Sen. Sen rejects mainstream (i.e. predominantly neoclassical) economic theory specifically on the grounds that it associates rational choice with either internal consistency of choice, the maximisation of self-interest or maximisation in general. The first of these he finds inadequate on the grounds that it permits quite contradictory schemes of choice to be simultaneously equally rational. Of the other two, he writes: ‘Rationality cannot be just an instrumental requirement for the pursuit of some given— and unscrutinized—set of objectives and values’ (Sen, 2002, p. 39). Rather, the primary deployment of rationality in human affairs must be a normative one. Rational choice will seek to favour what is better and banish what is worse. However, it should not be imagined that this prescription will necessarily help us to predict the choices people actually make. Nor should we suppose that rational choice will necessarily be overtly public-spirited rather than self-interested, or collaborative rather than competitive. All that rationality on these terms requires is that the person doing the choosing subjects their choices to self-scrutiny. Opportunities to choose, not only by selecting from a set of available options, but also by developing ‘metarankings’ (p. 12)—that is, preferences about what to prefer—are essential to freedom, and so ultimately to the ‘capability approach’ that Sen advocates. Hence, freedom, rationality and capability are conjoined by a process—iterative reflection on the worth of things—that might reasonably be described as learning, and could conceivably be serviced by particular forms of education. However, such reflection is an individual matter. How individual lives might be improved through education is a proper concern of philosophy of education, even if it is reached, as in this case,

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from a starting point in economics. Coming from this starting point reminds us that change starts with a given learner, embedded in a particular context characterised by its own peculiar opportunities and constraints. For a given teacher-pupil relationship this seems likely to be valuable. Within philosophy of education the possible implications of Sen’s overall approach have been carefully explored by Saito, who concludes: ‘the kind of education that best articulates the concept of Sen’s capability approach seems to be the one that makes people autonomous and, at the same time, develops people’s judgement about capabilities and their exercise’ (Saito, 2003, p. 29). It should not concern us too much that this prescription is capable of sitting quite happily within a neoclassical utility-maximising framework, since as Hodgson (2006) demonstrates, at its most fundamental such a framework is inherently non-falsifiable. More significantly, however, it returns us to our earlier question about the possible importance of collective actions and plans.


Proposals for social improvement through education frequently emphasise their commitment to, and indeed their exemplification of, rationality (see, for example, Kemmis and Fitzclarence, 1986; Brown and Lauder, 2001). This version of rationality is similar to that proposed at the level of the individual by Sen to the extent that it embraces a normative basis. However, and as we have seen, for Sen determination of the nature of that normative basis is itself a matter properly entrusted to the rational individual, while for much socially-focused educational writing a commitment to the achievement of social justice forms the only possible underpinning of rational, progressive action. We might ask, again using economic ideas, whether societies are in fact amenable to rational planning of this kind. Pennington (2008) discusses the implications of Hayekian economic and philosophical thinking for one instance of such planning, what aims to produce ‘sustainable development’. Sustainable development is a concept that has implications for education and is typically understood by its advocates to bring together issues of both environmental conservation and social justice (Scott and Gough, 2003). Pennington writes that, for Hayek:

If social wholes are indeed more than the sum of their individual parts then it follows logically that none of the constituent elements even when

acting in an organised group via institutions such as the state can ever comprehend all of the factors that contribute to the advance of the whole a reliance on spontaneous order is preferable precisely because it facilitates a higher level of rationality at the macro-social level than would be possible were the process of societal development to be

controlled by a designing mind or group

change via competitive testing of alternate practices is able to draw on a

For Hayek, incremental

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much wider division of knowledge than socialist attempts to ‘reconstruct’ cultural practices, whole cloth (Pennington, 2008, p. 97).

A number of important points arise from this analysis. We can see that

Hayek’s overall focus is social progress. To this extent, he shares the perspectives of not only socialist planners but also of all those who would seek to use government fiscal and regulatory interventions to ‘correct market failures’. However, beyond this point Hayek is as much at odds

with mainstream neoclassical economics as he is with socialist central planning, since these both typically claim to be able to determine ‘right’ or ‘best’ allocative arrangements, and this presupposes: firstly, that someone has, or can acquire the knowledge to do so, and; secondly, that there exists some optimum equilibrium position to serve as a target. In fact, Hayek argues, knowledge is both diffuse and dynamic. Individuals are embedded

in an overall social context that is constantly changing and of which they

can only ever comprehend a small part—whomsoever they may be, and even if they collaborate with others. There is plenty of scope for learning, and perhaps very little, beyond the straightforward transmission of knowledge and skills, for education. However, an alternative way of thinking about the collective goals of societies, and the possible place of education in achieving morally satisfactory, practically operable change within them, is offered by some ‘institutional’ economists (Hodgson, 2002, 2004, 2006). This is a tradition that is firmly located within pragmatist philosophical thought. It acknowledges a direct descent from Thorstein Veblen and a debt to John Dewey. It is consistent, in its explicitly Darwinian stance, with the philosophy of, for example, Richard Rorty (1999). Pragmatism continues

to be influential in the philosophy of education, for example in the recent

work of Andrew Stables (2005). Crucial to the institutionalist position is the recognition of emergent properties at ontologically distinct levels. Hence, it is possible, and indeed normal, for institutions to be reconstitutive of individuals, since they are more than the sum of the individuals that comprise them. In this respect, Hodgson (2004, p. 328) quotes Frank Knight as follows:

Wants are usually treated as the fundamental data, the ultimate driving force in economic activity, and in the short-run view of problems this is scientifically legitimate. But in the long run it is just as clear that wants are dependent variables, that they are largely caused and formed by economic activity. The case is somewhat like that of a river and its channel; for the time being the channel locates the river, but in the long run it is the other way round (Knight, 1924, pp. 262–3).

Here we have, in the most brutally brief of summaries, a developed economic view of the individual in society, not as an original and unexplained determining force, but as an emergent, active intellect already engaged with ongoing events. Education is not only possible, but also unavoidable, as individual learners are inducted into shared social

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traditions and habits. At the same time they retain the potential for rational critique of these traditions and habits. My point is not that all philosophy of education should concern itself with these possibilities, or with the apparent Hayekian lack of them, but simply that these are matters to which any complete philosophy of education might want to attend.


As we have seen, one way of thinking about the relationship between how people are now and how they might become in the future, while retaining key economic insights, is to modify (or abandon) the assumptions of a neoclassical approach in one way or another. An alternative is to retain the core assumptions of such an approach along with the analytical power they confer, but to detach them philosophically from long-term social decision-making processes so that they become, in effect, a vehicle for the conduct of social thought-experiments. The results of such experiments can then be considered in the fuller context of normative policy considerations. An example will serve to illustrate this possibility. Le Grand (2003) considers changing preferences over time in the context of individual savings and insurance decisions. In common with education aimed at personal and social development, both savings and insurance require a cost-bearing commitment in the present in order to generate an improved range of options under future circumstances that cannot be fully predicted. This is simply to say that current education takes place in a context of expectations, hopes and (sometimes) fears for the future; and that the future, when it arrives and for better or worse, will be partly formed from educational consequences. There should be no confusion here, on terminological grounds, with Freire’s concept of ‘banking education’. Drawing on the work of Derek Parfit (1984) and John Broome (1985), Le Grand develops a case that persons in the present may be said to treat their future selves as though they were different people. Further, this behaviour cannot be said to be irrational, since what connects the identity of a person aged nine to the identity of that same person when aged ninety is a set of psychological links that become increasingly attenuated as the age gap increases. Hence, present decisions cannot be expected to take proper, rational account of future potentialities. Le Grand writes:

This in turn means that there is a possibility of market failure. For there is now a group of people who are not participating in the market but who are affected by the decisions made by those who are participating in it. An individual’s future self is a person who is directly affected by that person’s current decisions in the marketplace. A 65-year-old may be poor because of myopic decisions taken by her 25-year-old self. Hence the 25- year-old is imposing costs on the 65-year-old through her decisions; but the 65-year-old has no say in those decisions (Le Grand, 2003, p. 90).

Hence, argues Le Grand, there is a straightforward economic case for corrective intervention by the state. Such action might or might not have

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educational components, but it certainly has educational implications, since the form of education indicated for young people who have been to some extent relieved of direct responsibility for their future selves would seem to be necessarily quite different from that indicated by the assumptions of Sen’s individual rationality, Hayek’s ‘spontaneous order’, or Hodgson’s account of institutions and habit-formation. In short, there are questions here that are at once educational, philosophical and economic.


All the approaches discussed above engage in one way or another with a fundamental difficulty noted earlier: that future potentialities can only possibly be evaluated in the light of (somebody’s) current knowledge and dispositions. An analogous difficulty—itself not without possible implications for education—has been identified in relation to human societies and environmental change by Richard Norgaard (1984, 1994). Readers will recall that it was suggested earlier that economics might be thought of as the study of how human beings survive through productive interaction with their environment. Norgaard proposes that the relationship between a society and its environment is a ‘co-evolutionary’ one in which each element iteratively shapes the other. Human actions over time bring about changes in the physical surroundings that people inhabit, that is, in the environment. These new surroundings call forth adjustments in social arrangements and meanings, which prompt actions resulting in further environmental adaptation; and so on. We should note two points in passing. Firstly, while this view attaches great significance to the social meanings that are attached to the natural world, it is neither anti-realist nor anti-scientific. When changes occur they do so in obedience to natural scientific laws, both known and unknown. However, since our knowledge of the workings of both the natural and social worlds is objectively incomplete, co- evolutionary changes in both the environment and society are unlikely to be fully predictable. Secondly, there is no prospect of an equilibrium or final state. Norgaard’s account of the core problem this situation creates is as follows:

The coevolutionary perspective explains why options are disturbingly limited in the short run; culture has determined environment and environment has determined culture. At each point in time there is a near gridlock of coevolved knowledge, values, technologies, social organization, and natural environment. Yet over the longer run we approach an equally disturbing situation of nothing determining anything, that all will change in unpredictable ways. Where we will be in the future is determined by neither today’s culture nor environment alone but by these and a host of unpredictable future factors. Yet come the future, near gridlock will prevail (Norgaard, 1994, p. 46).

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This notion of ‘co-evolutionary gridlock’ seems useful in thinking about the relationship between philosophy of education and economics. This can be seen by reference to a particular issue—human wellbeing—that is of established interest to philosophers of education (White, 2007), philoso- phers more widely (Seel, 1997), economists and others (Sumner, 2006). Its most commonly used measure at present is economic, but this is subject to challenge (McGillivray and Clarke, 2006). In contemporary policy discourse this notion of ‘wellbeing’ occupies a place somewhat similar to that of environmental protection. Neither concept has a conclusively determined set of parameters. Both are subject to repeated definition and re-definition of basic terminology, are treated very differently by different disciplinary specialisms, and sometimes give rise to demands (of one sort or another) for educational change. Wellbeing is clearly the larger concept of the two, however, since any meaningful conception of wellbeing cannot be located within a catastrophically degraded environment, whereas there is no obvious reason in principle why the environment might not flourish—in terms of biodiversity, for example—under circumstances in which human wellbeing was severely attenuated. White elaborates the concept of wellbeing, and the role of education and the philosophy of education within it, in the following terms:

Wellbeing is not to be understood in terms of individual desire- satisfaction, even where the desires are both informed and of major significance in a person’s life. If it is not a subjective matter in this sense, neither is it an objective matter of deriving it from features of our human nature. The truth is more subtle. Wellbeing is still desire-dependent, but the desires in question are not those of an individual, but of a loose collection of people (White, 2007, p. 25).

White goes on to characterise the role of education in wellbeing as the facilitation, between individual members of society, of conversations and other forms of communication that have the effect of developing those shared ‘desires’ while enhancing and extending participation in that ‘loose collection of people’. Education’s unique contribution is central to a wellbeing project that is developmental, inclusive and democratic. This project values people for what they are, but also is ambitious about what they might become. As we have seen, there is a tension here that can be theorised in a number of ways. However, the notion of co-evolutionary gridlock—which we might see as a broad description of the problem these theorisations address— reminds us that our current state of wellbeing is a product of our current knowledge, understandings and practices, and will be understood, evaluated and challenged in the light of these. And yet, over time, everything will change—even perhaps, in time, those values we presently hold most dear. Broadly speaking, the economics of the market provides particular insights into how things are. Philosophy requires us to consider how we would like things to become, and here the philosophy of education

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has particular significance in respect of matters such as human wellbeing where, as in White’s characterisation, education and learning are central to the process of change. However, co-evolution also suggests that any notion of an ideal end-state is a chimera. Education can, therefore, only ultimately be about supporting a journey; about travelling hopefully, never arriving. Wider accounts from economics will sometimes be helpful in managing progress, so responding to Le Grand’s already-mentioned complaint that philosophers pay too little attention to ‘practical implications’ with an acknowledgement that each and every ‘next step’ will have consequences in the here-and-now. White’s notion of a philosophy of education that facilitates the development of shared desires is suggestive and positive: but the pursuit of desires—even shared ones—impacts differently upon the circumstances of different individuals, and changes, over time, the parameters within which desires are formulated and the means of achieving them devised. For this reason, philosophers of education are also likely to find an engagement with alternative conceptions of the origins of economic behaviour worthwhile, even as they maintain their critiques of the narrowness of much contemporary educational-economic modelling.

Correspondence : Stephen Gough, Department of Education, University of Bath, Bath BA2 7AY, UK. E-mail: S.R.Gough@bath.ac.uk


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