Vol. LXXVI (2018) - No. 269 La educación, en teoría [Education in theory].

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Martínez, M., Esteban, F. Jover, G. and Payá, M. (2016).


Writing a book of educational theory with clarity is not a simple task. This is what makes this text distinctive; it has a clear structure, its language is –on the whole– direct and very comprehensible and eloquent, and it covers classical questions in this discipline relating to contemporary educational problems. With that in mind, the authors –professors and teachers of educational theory from the Universidad de Barcelona and the Universidad Complutense of Madrid– provide a text aimed at academics, educational professionals, and the general public. ,

Its four parts and twelve chapters are interconnected with real, imaginary, literary, and cinematic examples serving as a base for the theoretical analyses performed in it. The different parts give a range of answers to the questions raised, complementing and in some cases even opposing each other, thereby providing a wealth of perspectives of great interest to the reader. ,

This differs from ordinary handbooks of educational theory in that it does not tackle the ideas of the great thinkers nor does it scrutinise current problems in the light of these thinkers’ ideas, but instead, as the authors themselves state, it aims to challenge the theory of education from practice, attempting to reduce the space between these two sides of the educational coin, albeit without neglecting the contributions made by the great educational theorists. Similarly, the special attention given to the moral dimension of education is notable, as the authors themselves state at the end of the book (p. 212). This is not unusual given the lines of research that have been developed over the years, and that make it possible to approach the topic with the guarantee of experience and in-depth analysis. ,

The first part focuses on the figure of the educator and, starting with the example of Germain and Camus, commends their decisive role in students’ lives. As the authors explain, the influence of educators is vitally important and is personal and inescapable, indispensable, un‑ avoidable, and is not something they can choose. On the same lines as some recent and classical pieces of research into moral education, they affirm that good teachers are similar to teachers who are good people, and so good professional conduct is linked to the teacher’s worldview and personal excellence, characterised by: ,

They rightly criticise the depersonalisation that instrumental rationality produces in educational activities and, to do so, they contrast the traditional content‑focussed educational approach with the progressive student-centred one, noting that while the centre of attention changes with the change of model, the scientification of the pedagogical relation‑ ship is maintained in both. Recognising that these approaches lack validity has shifted the gaze to the teacher’s person‑ al influence, thus bringing us closer to a friendly relationship, and although the two cannot be conflated, respect is an essential element of them both, to which education adds trust and optimism. However, this does not exempt education from its personal element, which cannot just be functional but is intentional, as its objective goes beyond itself and centres on students and their free approach to the world. ,

They also analyse educational influence and intent through basic questions such as the why and what for of education, answering with the moral and social obligation it involves in the path towards being human, from which the importance of the educational activity and the edu‑ cators derives. As well as being open to different spaces and times, in my view it is important to emphasise that its concept goes beyond linear growth, in that it is also directed at the recognition of one’s own limitations, overcoming difficulties, etc. Agreeing with the German pedagogue Spranger, they provide an interesting definition of education as «favouring the intimate capturing of cultural products and stimulating their expansion, guided by what should be done» (p. 51). And, alongside this, on the same lines as what was previously proposed, they define educators as «people who have made pedagogy the centre of their lives, who have performed in themselves the experience of complete humanisation» (p. 53), and so, as the title of the chapter states, good intentions are not enough; individual development as a person to become an educator is needed. ,

The second part considers educational content and, more specifically, focuses on its current narrow utilitarian definition, where efficiency and effectiveness set the template for its selection. Consequently, the authors explain that the culture regarded as classical is being side‑lined, as it is regarded as being disconnected from current reality and identify it with rote learning, without understanding that not only allows us to climb onto the shoulders of giants, but that it offers us knowledge of reality and of ourselves. This leads us to one of the most important current debates in education, in which the two positions are exemplified by the ideas of Dewey on the one hand, and Oakeshott on the other, contrasting the continuity of experience across generations with dialogic learning of the human world that permits individuals to rise above their circumstances. This debate has also reached universities, where culture, according to Dewey, must functionally serve the current situation, thus maintaining the continuity between the past and the present. The authors state that the professional dimension of education must be truly educational, linked to techniques and their fundamentals, to their history and its place in the world, maintaining an equilibrium between social needs and participation in the conversation about the meaning of human existence. ,

The third part directs its attention towards the learner, identifying two ways of conceiving students based on liberal and communitarian thinking, respectively. The authors argue for a combination of both conceptions in light of the current position that prioritises the former over the latter, with serious consequences for education’s moral dimension such as the promotion of indifference towards the student, regarding the moral as a marketplace or buffet of values with different options but without criteria for choice, or the unrealistic aspiration to moral neu‑ trality without understanding that this is also a moral choice. Accordingly, their an‑ thropological analysis of students is also very interesting, taking as its reference point the paradigmatic tension between the case of Victor of Aveyron and the naturalist philosophy of Rousseau. As an alternative to these two unsuccessful focuses, the authors suggest knowing oneself while maintaining the engagement with the world, being conscious of one’s possi‑ bilities while drawing on the reflection of others. ,

Chapter 9 introduces a different perspective to the analysis of the student, and starting from postmodernist approaches warns of the prudence and humility needed when educating, avoiding the errors of positivism and technicality in education, leaving space for the un‑ foreseeable in the classroom. Following Arendt, they define the student as a radical novelty who demands a new educational experience from the educator that takes form in infinite possibilities for action that demand openness, flexibility, and renewal when faced with the new beginning. The consequence of this approach is a fully horizontal relationship with the student who becomes the central figure in the educational process. ,

The fourth and final part refers to the setting in which education occurs. A multitude of resources is of little use without an educational meaning that guides them, something which, in the authors’ view, has happened in recent times in the field of education. ,

Accordingly, they identify three pernicious trends, namely: ,

a) A necessary but excessive openness of the school to reality neglecting the ethical guidance of the of the students. ,

b) An excessive centrality of the student based on over‑evaluating their capacities, even though they are in the process of developing and are not yet mature enough to determine educational practice, something that in turn leads to a neglect of the teacher’s core functions. ,

c) The family‑school relationship has gone from blind trust in the teacher’s work to constant questioning and suspicion, detracting from the educational conversation and and climate. ,

As a result of this, they call on schools and other social agents to cooperate to ensure the quality of education, as in isolation it is not possible for them to fulfi their objectives. In this way, the classical boundaries between formal, non-formal, and informal education tend to disappear, with feedback and synergy patterns that are nowadays very necessary being established that help educational success beyond traditional educational targets be understood. ,

The final chapter has a different character to the previous ones, and provides a historical‑disciplinary map of educational theory, considering its origins in Spain and its international roots in the German, French, and British traditions. In my view it is of interest to emphasise the current challenges in this discipline that are noted in the book, which are essentially twofold: its relationship with practice and technique, without this entailing renouncing theoretical knowledge, and its development in the postmodern paradigm that goes so far as to deny the possibility of its existence, fundamentally owing to its regulatory dimension, something that, in the view of the authors can be resolved with proposals that maintain the tension in the moral sphere between the universal and the local. ,

Along with the foregoing, this book provides clear evidence that educational theory is not, as is said in some fora about Latin and Ancient Greek, a dead language, but that in the current utilitarian setting, educational theory has much to say and is called upon to play a crucial role, linked to practice but with its own entity. More than ever, it is relevant to recall Kant’s statement that «practice without theory is blind and theory with‑ out practice is sterile.» ,

Juan Luis Fuentes

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