The 12th Annual Bergen Educational Conversation – Education’s Autonomy

Litteraturhuset in Bergen (The Literature House)
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When:30. April   09:00
Last until: 01. May 16:00
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Education's Autonomy


Ninety years ago, in The Sources of a Science Education, Dewey made the courageous statement:

Education is autonomous and should be free to determine its own ends, its own objectives. To go outside the educational function and to borrow objectives from an external source is to surrender the educational cause. Until educators get the independence and courage to insist that educational aims are to be formed as well as executed within the educative process, they will not come to consciousness of their own function. Others will then have no great respect for educators because educators do not respect their own social place and work. (p. 38)

By using the terms 'educational function', 'educators', and 'educative process', Dewey suggests that he does not limit 'education' to an academic discipline but that he refers to a broader sphere of practice (which, admittedly, includes academic inquiry). This broad meaning for education's autonomy is supported by Wilson's (1997) argument against basing education on a social or political ideology, Hogan's (2010) claim that "education is precisely a sui generis undertaking, or more plainly, a coherent practice in its own right" (p. 90), and Masschelein and Simons' (2013) claim that "the school must suspend or decouple certain ties with students' family and social environment on the one hand and with society on the other" (p. 15).

However, due to political and economic forces, it is difficult to envision autonomy for education today—especially as a practical social sphere—as in Dewey's time. Still, some scholars continue to raise and address questions that are relevant for education's autonomy. For example, Wilson (2003) asks: "Are there educational values in their own right, perhaps enshrined in the concept of education itself? Or are educational values just a mishmash of moral and political and other values, as these happen to crop up in the practice of education?" (p. 284). In a similar vein, Biesta (2011) reminds us that the Anglo-American and Continental constructions of educational studies differ in their answer to "the question of whether there are forms of theory and theorizing that are distinctively educational rather than that they are generated through 'other' disciplines" (p. 176). Biesta (2014) characterizes the Continental construction as one in which educators "saw insights emerging from other disciplines, including philosophy, as possible resources for what they saw as their key task, which was to develop educational forms of theory and theorizing" (p. 72). In our own work we explore education's 'immanence' and 'agency' (Baldacchino, 2015) and education's 'autonomist immanence' (Baldacchino, 2017) as distinct from art's 'immanence' (an examination that leads to characterization of art education), and education's 'agency' that is based on an 'educational way of thinking' and is articulated by educational governance in the form of autonomous and independent 'sovereign education' (Yosef-Hassidim, 2018).

Despite these disparate attempts to tackle the problem of education's autonomy, it is still under-theorized; What does autonomous education means? What does independence for educators mean? What are the obstacles and challenges for realizing them, and the ways to face these hurdles? Addressing these and other questions is crucial in offering a more comprehensive framework for education's autonomy. Therefore, in order to further advance the idea of educational autonomy, we invite scholars to conduct theoretical studies on its meaning and possible consequences. By 'education' we mean institutionalized mass education, namely, K-12 and higher education.

We feel that such a project is needed and timely for three main reasons. First, advancing education's autonomy holds the potential to assist in protecting education against assaults, by promoting agenda of "standing up for Education" and speaking "educationally for education" (Biesta & Säfström, 2011, p. 542).

Second, a theoretical study of education's autonomy is required in order to lead or complement the empirical inquiry on educators' autonomous work. Empirical studies in other areas such as educational change (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2009, 2012) and teacher unions (Courtney & Little, 2014; Weiner, 2015) document and analyze the work of educators, and offer frameworks that suggest different roles for educators—both professionals and academics—in setting educational goals and shaping educational polices. Theoretical inquiry must not lag behind in this regard, but rather offer the unique tools in its disposal. One aspect in which theoretical inquiry about education's autonomy is especially important is offering conceptual frameworks that challenge the subordinate and instrumental role of education. Leading the inquiry about education's autonomy and educators' independence will promote the relevance of educational theory (including philosophy of education) in educational research as well as practice.

Third, considering education's autonomy is timely following recent reflections on educational theory (for example, Biesta, Allan & Edwards (2013) on the role and place of theory in education; also, forthcoming special volume of Educational Philosophy and Theory on 'After postmodernism in educational theory'). The idea of an education that is autonomous provides unexplored and interesting paths for examining educational theory and its relation to (and impact on) practice.

Finally, reflecting upon the meaning, consequences, and general feasibility of educational autonomy is especially timely for philosophers of education in light of recent voices within philosophy of education that seek to identify and emphasize that which is educational against that which is philosophical in educational theory. These voices call for a more explicit and clear educational perspective in considering and integrating philosophy. In addition to Biesta mentioned above, other scholars even doubt the mere worth of philosophy for education or worry that the relationship between these two disciplines damages education (Fenstermacher, 2002; Papastephanou, 2009; Thompson, 2002).While these scholars stress independence (or autonomy) for education particularly from philosophy, we seek to expand the reflection about educational autonomy beyond the relationship between education and philosophy, as a social and professional sphere.


In light of the above, we invite scholars in education to write papers that address aforementioned questions and other questions, such as:

  • What does autonomous education—one that is 'free to determine its own ends'—mean? How might such an education be achieved? What does it entail?
  • What are some of the most powerful arguments for believing such autonomy impossible or undesirable?
  • In seeking to distinguish the educational and the non-educational, where do we draw the line? For example:
    - is it even possible to draw such boundaries, or is education always thoroughly entangled with other social spheres?
    - Can these boundaries be drawn ahistorically and universally, or would the boundary shift according to time and place?
    - How would a proponent of the autonomy view respond to the common claim that apolitical education is only a "myth" and "folklore" (Wirt & Kirst, 1997)? Under education's autonomy, what should be the relationship between education and politics? Can education be positioned outside politics?
    - How does the distinction between education and schooling figure into arguments for or against autonomy?
    - Is education indeed a coherent entity or rather a collection of related practices (e.g., elementary/secondary/post-secondary, mainstream/special education, urban/rural education)?
    - Or consider another challenge to the coherence of education. Why should we stop at the autonomy of education? Why not go on to stress the autonomy of art, mathematics, history, etc.? Is there really an educational way of thinking that transcends these component practices?
    - What aspects of the non-educational have we mistaken for the educational?
  • What are the implications of educational autonomy for democratic governance of education? In what sense, if any, does education's autonomy mean an epistocratic political regime that is not democratic (see Brennan, 2017)? For example, what should be the funding arrangement for autonomous K-12 education? Can an autonomous education be a public education?
  • How might an autonomous education be a corrective to previous miseducation and thus a force for social reform? For example, how might an autonomous education mitigate neoliberal tendencies?
  • What are the implications of the autonomy view for teaching and teacher education?
  • How does the autonomy view help us address "the theory question in education and the education question in theory" (Biesta, Allan & Edwards, 2013)? Is there a distinctly educational way of thinking, an educational theory of education? If so, what are their characteristics? Does this simply mean using an "educational 'filter'" (Biesta, Allan & Edwards, 2013, p. 4) for input from other disciplines, or also using an educational 'generator' for creating ideas?

Herner Saeverot

Herner Saeverot, PhD
Professor of Education
Western Norway University
Inndalsveien 28
Bergen 5020