Alasdair MacIntyre on Education

Alasdair MacIntyre in 2009

By Sean O’Connor –, CC BY 2.0,

One of the summer’s great discoveries for me was the work of Alasdair MacIntyre. It’s a late discovery, but in a strange way, also just in time. A moral philosopher, i.e. a philosopher of ethics, MacIntyre has had a long and distinguished career. He’s reached a wide audience as well, writing in such a way that one need not be a specialist to understand his arguments. His writing is helping me understand some longstanding difficulties I have experienced within academic culture(s). His work also helps me think more precisely, and at greater depth, about fundamental questions regarding the character of learning within higher education. I’ve been a professor long enough to have seen many complex and often very well-intentioned ideas about how to scale up higher education, make it more accessible, make it more effective, and so forth. Student-centered education, learner-centered education, learning-centered education, learning science, student success, personalized or adaptive learning, next-generation digital learning environments, workforce preparation, analytics, rubrics, Bloom, Barr & Tagg, the varieties of open, the list goes on. Yet many basic assumptions go unquestioned or even undetected. So I’m drawn to philosophy, a discipline that should help us keep our thinking rigorous and organized, to try to work through these assumptions and identify, at the very least, what I truly believe–and what I ought to be convinced of, too.

I used to think the bedrock layer was epistemology. How do we know what we know? I still think that’s an essential question, but I now think the even more urgent question is the one raised by moral philosophy: what then must we do? and on what evidence, for what reasons, do we decide the answers to that question? In the end, epistemology and moral philosophy are thickly mingled, but the latter carries with it the dilemmas and inquiries I feel most strongly.

To give you a taste of what I’m reading, I quote below from an interview with MacIntyre conducted by a philosopher of education named Joseph Dunne, and published in The Journal of the Philosophy of Education Vol. 26, No. 1, 2002. The entire “dialogue” is well worth reading, even though it’s ultimately a little disappointing that MacIntyre won’t quite grasp all the nettles Dunne offers him. That said, MacIntyre’s clarity in this lengthy excerpt puts the matter quite cogently, and with a strong sense of the dangers present in some of the rhetorics of educational “success” that are now pervading the discussion. One might even call these rhetorics the “prosperity gospel” version of higher education, and ask how such definitions of “success” will help when the storms come–as they do, especially when we dare to hope to try to build a better world, and especially when those efforts are thwarted.

Here’s MacIntyre:

During the period of fifty or so years in which I have been a teacher, almost, but not quite always in universities, the tasks of the teacher have become ever more difficult. When I spoke about those difficulties in 1985 in my Richard Peters lecture, what I had in mind was the tension between two different sets of tasks, one imposed by the social and educational system on the teacher, the other arising from the very nature of education. What the system requires of teachers is the production of the kind of compliant manpower that the current economy needs, with the different levels of skill and kinds of skill that are required in a hierarchically ordered economy. Some few children are to become corporate executives and stockbrokers, some others lawyers and physicians, very many more will occupy the lower ranks of the service, manufacturing and farming industries, and then there will be those destined by their inadequate education to provide an adequate supply of casual unskilled labour.

These unequal outcomes are required by our social and economic order. But what education has to aim at for each and every child, if it is not to be a mockery, is both the development of those powers that enable children to become reflective and independent members of their families and political communities and the inculcation of those virtues that are needed to direct us towards the achievement of our common and individual goods.

Yet, insofar as such education is successful, it will to a remarkable extent render those who profit from it unfit to participate compliantly and successfully in the social and economic order. For they will have learned how to ask questions about the activities presented by that order which it is important–from the standpoint of that order–not to ask. What questions are these? They will be of at least three kinds. A first concerns the goods served by each particular type of activity. A good education is one in which students learn not only how to play their intended part in different kinds of complex activity by developing their skills, but also how to recognise the goods served by those activities, goods which give point and purpose to what they do.

A second set of questions will be elicited by the answers to the first set. Insofar as the activities in which they engage turn out not to serve genuine goods, and more especially not to serve the common goods of the family and the local political community, what is to be done. This is partly a political question, but it is also a question for individuals about their own work. Where can I find work to do that is both for my good and for the common good? Here it matters that in the market society of advanced modernity being successful involves going where the money is and this with a single-mindedness and a tunnel vision that makes it less and less easy to enjoy the success for which one has learned to lust. The metaphor of the rat race becomes increasingly appropriate and in Ireland the true emblem of the past decade is not the Celtic tiger, but the Celtic rat.

Being unsuccessful involves being where the money is not and teachers, although much better off than either the working or the unemployed poor, are sill a paradigm case of lack of success. But teachers have one great advantage over many other members of the workforce. Not only do they serve the common good, but even when either the bureaucratic or the economic constraints on their teaching deform it, or when their own defects as teachers prevent them from achieving what they should and can achieve, they generally have colleagues with whom they can enquire together how to remedy matters.

Yet this is not so for almost everyone else. Most people, if and when they have asked a first set of questions about the goods at stake in their activities, and a second set of questions about what is to be done, will find themselves badly in need of discussion and enquiry with others, so that their initial answers to the first two sets of questions may be tested against the best objections that can be brought against those answers. But, when they ask a third set of questions about the possibilities for such discussion and enquiry, they will find that our contemporary social order offers almost no opportunity for them. Our conditions of work are such and our institutions are such that there is very rarely any milieu within which, in the company of others, we can step back from the established ongoing order of things and raise questions about it sub specie boni.

Why is this? It is in part because of the phenomenon of social compartmentalisation, of the increasing extent to which each particular area of life is delimited, with its own norms and prescribed roles, so that the self is in danger of being liquidated into those roles, presenting one persona in the home, another in the workplace, a third at parties or in a bar, yet without anywhere to recollect who she or he is as a human being and to reflect upon what the point and purpose of the whole may be, so that one can better understand the parts….

So contemporary teachers have the task of educating their students, so that those students will bring to the activities of their adult life questioning attitudes that will put them at odds with the moral temper of the age and with its dominant institutions. Many of these students will become frustrated, many will be defeated. But some will find their own way and become, by the standards of the age, unintelligibly happy failures….

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