Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: September 2011

The Paideia Proposal

The Paideia Proposal was an educational reform plan proposed by Mortimer Adler in the USA. The description of the plan below is drawn from the article Reconstituting the Schools, included in the 1988 edition of his book Reforming Education, The Opening of the American Mind.

The Paideia Proposal is a system of liberal education intended for all children, including those who will never attend a university. It was a response to what Adler characterized as our antidemocratic or undemocratic educational system, a holdover from the 19th century, when the understanding of universal suffrage and basic human rights fell short of 20th century expectations. Adler further believed that a system oriented primarily for vocational training has as its objective the training of slaves, not free men, and that the only preparation necessary for vocational work is to learn how to learn, since many skilled jobs would be disappearing.

The Paidea Proposal was based upon the following assumptions, which contradict beliefs widely held by educators:

  1. All children are educable
  2. Education is never completed in school or higher institutions of learning, but is a life long process of maturity for all citizens
  3. The primary cause of learning is the activity of the child’s mind, which is not created by, but only assisted by the teacher
  4. Multiple types of learning and teaching must be utilized in education, not just teacher lecturing, or telling
  5. A student’s preparation for earning a living is not the primary objective of schooling

The relevance of the Paidea Proposal to our present difficulties is obvious. Clearly the damaging assumptions that Adler challenges are still around today and they still damage the spirit and capacities of today’s children and adults.

However, and at the same time, it could be said that many of the failed reforms of past decades have also drawn on some of Adler’s counter-cultural assumptions. His optimism about the capacity of educators to include more and more children within their academic disciplines also seems to have fed a decline in academic standards and discipline as educators are told to be more inclusive and more flexible.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we continue to see education as merely a professional process that is done to our children – to prepare them for labour markets. If we were to truly follow through on Adler’s assumptions would we not want to consider a more radical approach to education? The springboard for a child’s education is the love of the family, not the love of educators. We want our teachers to love and honour their subjects and find effective methods for communicating those subjects to our children. But we erode the family’s authority and responsibility by taking away form them the ability to shape their child’s education.

Strangers are much less likely to see potential within a child than loving parents.

The community does have a wider role here, both to support and discipline the family in the fulfilling of their responsibility. But no school-only approach is really going to work for most children. We need to begin developing family-based approaches to education.

Furthermore we need to challenge the notion that the state is competent to set a curriculum based on its flawed guesstimates of what the labour market will demand at some point in the future (all the more flawed because markets don’t ‘demand’ anything). Again we may still want to think about explicit accounts of the basic skills that are critical to our citizenship – but we should much more realistic about our capacity to foresee the market-value of skills we try and impose on our children today. Listening to the child’s capacities is more likely to be a reliable foundation for meaningful success that any sketch of our future economy.

It does not help those who are educationally disenfranchised to include them in a system that is flawed and failing. Instead we must attend to the conditions that really support motivated learning, personal development and real excellence in multiple fields: academic and non-academic.


Democratic Welfare Reform

The struggle for democracy offers us a parallel to the struggle for welfare reform. People need more control over their own lives, within an institutional framework that creates rights and opportunties for redress. We must end the feudal assumption of the current elite that their power brings with it all the necessary authority and wisdom to rule every detail of our lives.

Mr Pye and Do-Goodery

Mervyn Peake’s novel Mr Pye is a wonderful fable on the perils of do-goodery. Bringing boundless wisdom and benevolence to the island of Sark he ends up, much to his own disgust, turning into a winged angel.

What is at the root of his strange fall is his own pride, his determination to not just be good – but to look good.

Several symptoms of his prideful benevolence shine though the pages of the novel:

Unlike Christ, Mr Pye never asks the person he is about to help whether he really wants his assistance. 

Power is never questioned. Confident in his own benevolence and greater wisdom he treats people as puppets – at times quite literally. 

God becomes the “Great Pal” – always smiling, always present. Only in his final reconciliation with God does he experience any fear and trembling.

Do-goodery is not good. Goodness follows the path of justice: it is always respectful, humble and mindful that any good that is done never really came from the self anyway.

One Value of Diversity

A diversification among human communities is essential for the provision of the incentive and material for the Odyssey of the human spirit. Other nations of different habits are not enemies: they are godsends. Men require of their neighbours something sufficiently akin to be understood, something sufficiently different to provoke attention, and something great enough to command admiration.

A N Whitehead

The Odyssey of the Human Spirit may seem rather grand to modern ears. But it is a wonderful perspective on human existence.

We take diversity for granted. We do not understand how valuable are the differences between us. If we imagine stripping away the dimensions of human diversity we find that we will be left with an empty shell – nothing of value. Contra John Lennon we need our countries, our languages, diverse skills, diverse needs, different perspectives, different histories, genders and different bodies.

We know that each of us are not complete in ourselves – we each need the difference of one another.

Not from Benevolence

[each individual] stands at all times in the need of the co-operation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons…

…It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their interest.

Adam Smith

We can all dream of a world in which everyone puts aside their own selfish interests and seeks the good of all. But this is not just unattractive it is undesirable. Our duty to look after our own interests is right and proper. It is the only way in which our own needs can be met in a way which is both coherent and respectful.

Other people can never look out for our own interests with the necessary eye for detail. It is hard enough doing it as a parent for a child we love, it is impossible to do it as a collective on behalf of everyone. Only we know ourselves from the inside out.

More remarkably still, as Smith observes, if kept within certain bounds, this kind of proper self love is of great benefit to everyone. Our own need for the things that only other people can provide creates a healthy interdependency. Nature makes sure that we need other people and that they need us.

The great danger however is that looking after our own interests can be turned into an idol or a god. Love for the self will not solve every problem. It will not protect the world itself nor will it protect the interests of those who are endangered by others.

We also need to love other people and we need the discipline to ensure that we can find the right balance between these two loves. It is for this reason that society develops rules and institutions that help us keep these loves in balance. The search for social justice is the search to find the right balance between love for self and love for others and the world we share.

However even social justice can be corrupted. When we begin to see some people as just too different we can be tempted to separate them from the interconnecting web of human need. Then we are in danger of making the most fatal mistakes. The eugenicist, the racist and the meritocrat all share the same mission to redefine humanity so that they only have to focus their love for others on some smaller group – some group within which they find it easier to see a mirror image of themselves.

True social justice will always be inclusive, will always seek to define itself primarily by its concern for those who are most likely to slip out of consideration all together.


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness….

The Declaration of Independence

These words are so familiar that their radical nature now scarcely registers. Moreover, even those of us who like America and Americans, tend to become cynical when we put these words alongside the kind of heartlessness that seems to pervade social policy in the USA. It looks like the right to pursue your own happiness has ended up trumped all those other of inalienable rights.

But, if we are interested in how to bring about a better world, a fairer world, then cynicism takes us nowhere. Two things at least should inspire us:

The call to recognise our fundamental equality as human beings is so powerful that it resounds through the centuries. It rings true even amidst slave owners and it creates demands on all of us even when we are failing to live up to those demands or are confused about what equality means.

The recognition of this equality has also inspired some of the most profound acts of creation and social justice. Radical innovation is not always successful or good – most revolutions are profoundly damaging and wicked. However the existence of this American Revolution – at least partially inspired by justice – demonstrates that human beings can build anew, with at least some success.

Perhaps one further lesson of the Declaration is the power of reason – thinking, writing and reflecting – to help both galvanise and organise human behaviour. In particular the Declaration is both the recognition of an ideal and an acknowledgement of the human weaknesses that will undermine that ideal. Rights, duties and all the underlying structures of government that support them exist because we cannot be trusted, on our own, to do the right thing. We need reason to help us understand our own weaknesses by looking honestly at human behaviour, our history and the lessons it can teach.

The Centre of Totalitarianism

Just as the stability of the totalitarian regime depends on sealing off the fictitious world of the movement from the outside world, so the experiment of total domination in the concentration camps depends upon sealing off the latter against the world of all others, the world of the living in general, even against the outside world of a country under totalitarian rule. This isolation explains the peculiar unreality and lack of credibility that characterise all reports from the concentration camps and constitute one of the main difficulties for the true understanding of totalitarian domination, which stands or falls with the existence of these concentration and extermination camps; for, unlikely as it may sound, these camps are the true central institution of totalitarian organisational power.

Hannah Arendt from The Origins of Totalitarianism

Many people are rightly nervous of any attempt to compare Hitler’s death camps with any other institution  in world history. After writing the The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt herself was criticised for comparing the death camps with Stalin’s gulags.

But Arendt’s analysis of the unreality of the camps – the way in which they were sealed off from public view and made to seem ‘impossible’ to many – even in Germany itself – should make us question this prohibition on comparison. Finding some point of comparison does not lessen the evil of the death camps, instead it is a way to make sure we do to forget that evil. To seal the camps of as unique and unrepeatable evil is a failure: a failure to remember, a failure to connect, a failure to honour the dead and a failure to arm ourselves against such evils in the future.

We should be able to see that institutions that hide people away, segregate them from ordinary life and create utter dependence are dangerous and very likely to tip into evil.

Science and Humanity

Science in that sense moderates potential Hitlers [they need the scientists for their own victories and so must take care of them] – but only in that sense. In general it increases man’s power without increasing his virtue, hence increasing his power to do both good and evil.

The total picture is one of great danger resulting from the political involvement of science. Some people assert that we have to reinvent politics in order to meet the danger. Swift tells us that politics was already reinvented by the founders of the Enlightenment, and that is the problem. It turned out that natural science had nothing to say about human things, about the uses of science for life or about the scientist. If he does so, he uses none of the tools he uses in his scientific activity, and his conclusions have none of the demonstrative character he demands in his science. Science has broken off from the self-consciousness about science that was the core of ancient science. This loss of self-consciousness is somehow connected with the banishment of poetry. 

Alan Bloom from The Closing of the American Mind

Social science seems to contradict Bloom: it offers itself up as a science for society, for politics and for human beliefs and culture. But closer attention reveals that social science demonstrates the validity of Bloom’s perspective.

The important judgements about society, about ourselves and about others are moral judgements. They need not be subjective or prejudicial (although the gravitational pull towards mere subjectivity is always present) but they cannot be neutral. Neutrality is just under-cover scepticism and that is a moral perspective in itself.

Towards a View from Nowhere

In the pursuit of justice, positional illusions can impose serious barriers that have to be overcome through broadening the informational basis of evaluations, which is one of the reasons why Adam Smith demanded that perspectives from elsewhere, including from far away, have to be systematically invoked. Though much can be done through the deliberate use of open impartiality, the hope of proceeding smoothly from positional views to an ultimate ‘view from nowhere’ cannot hope to succeed fully.

Amartya Sen from The Idea of Justice

Sen is rightly cautioning us to avoid any simplistic or reductive attempt to fix what is morally important. We are familiar with the notion that pursuing our own self-interest with no regard to its impact on other people is wrong. But he is also saying that even if we do have moral concern for others the nature of that concern can also be very partial – unfair. We don’t always understand what is in the interests of other people nor can we always trust our own values or ideals. Partiality creeps in everywhere.

However it is also important to notice that scepticism about our own moral perspective can easily slip into scepticism about morality as a whole. This is very different and very dangerous. Becoming sceptical about morality may seem more ‘liberal’ or even (in a highly paradoxical way) more moral; but it is not. Moral scepticism is the death of our shared humanity – it excuses both selfishness and moral laziness.

The fact that an objective perspective, God’s perspective, is difficult to achieve does not entitle us to abandon morality or to stop striving for moral truth.

In fact it is more rational to be humble rather than sceptical. It makes more sense, when in doubt, to look to the authority of those we can trust and to those values that have survived longest, instead of throwing ourselves upon the bonfire of scepticism.

Do Not Harvest to the Edges – Biblical Social Justice Theory

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien.
I am the Lord your God.

Do not steal.
Do not lie.
Do not deceive one another.
Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God.
I am the Lord.

Do not defraud your neighbour or rob him.
Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.
Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling-block in front of the blind, but fear your God.
I am the Lord.

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.
Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
Do not do anything that endagers your neighbour’s life.
I am the Lord.

Do not hate your brother in your heart.
Rebuke your neighbour frankly so that you will not share in his guilt.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.
I am the Lord.

Keep my decrees.

Leviticus: 19:9-8

This ancient account of social justice theory is not just interesting because it demonstrates how our awareness of the demands of social justice has a very long history. It also shows that about social justice in the past was often more sophisticated – even if it is framed in terms of an agricultural economy – than our thinking today. Notice in particular:

  1. The priority of making sure the most needy are provided for, but also the way in which this maintains the dignity and the autonomy of the poor – who do not need to beg or receive patronage.
  2. The importance of fair dealing and the imperative to not exploit those who work for you by delaying payments.
  3. The need to create an environment of dignity and respect for all – especially for those who can easily be taken advantage of.

These observations are all reinforced by the fear of God – his knowledge of all your actions and all your intentions. There is complete awareness that enlightened self-interest is not sufficient to protect those who might be  exploited by the more powerful. The constant refrain – “I am the Lord” – puts everyone in their place, reminds everyone that the power or status in this world is illusory – it justifies nothing and entitles us to no special treatment.

Citizenship in the Welfare State

Above all, I think the idea of citizenship should remain at the centre of modern political debates about social and economic arrangements. The concept of a citizen is that of a person who can hold [their] head high and participate fully and with dignity in the life of [their] society.

Jeremy Waldron in Liberal Rights

This observation was really important to me. I had been taught by Jeremy Waldron when I studied politically theory and especially social justice theory with him at Edinburgh. He was an impressive and challenging thinker. But I only read this in one of his books some years later – while working with people with learning difficulties.

At that point I had seen my role as about promoting citizenship and helping people take back control over their own lives. But what was powerful in Waldron’s observation was the realisation that the whole welfare state (although often to a lesser degree than the institutional models imposed on people with learning difficulties) tended to treat people, not as citizens, but as subjects.

We need to move away from models of public policy that treat citizens as if they were merely subjects – or as Aristotle would have it ‘slaves’. This demands change at every level – from constitutional foundations to the direct interface between citizens and professionals.

© 2019 Simon Duffy

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑