Dr. Robin Barrow Urges Educators to Think about What It Means to Be “Well-educated” and What It Means for Their Teaching

May 31, 2020

Dr. Robin Barrow was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied Classics and Philosophy. He has a Ph.D from the University of London for his thesis on Plato’s political philosophy. In a career spanning over five decades and two continents, Dr. Robin Barrow  taught at the City of London School (1968-72), the University of Leicester (1972-82) where he was appointed to a personal Readership in Philosophy of Education in 1980, and Simon Fraser University (1982-2019). He was Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Western Ontario (1977-8) and Visiting Professor at the University of Auckland (1994).  He served as the Dean of Education at SFU from 1992-2002. He is the author of 23 books (and editor of three) and about a hundred articles in academic journals, in the fields of philosophy, classics, and education. In 1996, he was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He was also Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first librettist.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Robin Barrow and getting to know his philosophy and work that he shared for the readers of Research in Focus.

Please tell us a little about yourself and your academic and professional backgrounds.

My primary passions are: classical music (particularly opera) and, perhaps oddly, popular music (particularly 50s pop and country music): literature, particularly Victorian: soccer (Leicester City). Besides writing and directing a few plays, I have been a practicing magician, a lover of Greece and Italy, and a cheerful imbiber of wine.

On graduating, I had no particular ambition(s) and no real idea of what I wanted to do. I opted to go into teaching because I loved Classics and because I thought it would be a relatively easy life, compared to working for some company. I was not consciously motivated by any desire to engage with the young. This sometimes gets me into trouble with fellow educationalists who believe that teaching is primarily about “loving kids”, and that the job of teaching is extremely onerous. It isn’t. At any rate it ought not to be. Demanding, certainly. But onerous? Not compared to working down a mine or as an accountant. While I have become good friends with many of my students over the years, I still think that ideally we should enter teaching because we want to teach them something rather than because we want to commune with them.

I took a job at the City of London School teaching Latin, Greek, Ancient History and English. (I also taught a General Studies course on popular music.) I remained there for four years, in many ways the happiest of my career.

I switched to teaching philosophy at University largely by chance. At that date, besides being very happy at CLS, I was more interested in ancient history than philosophy. But Richard Peters, at that time possibly the most significant figure in philosophy of education, had read a paper of mine on the pros and cons (educational and ethical) of private boarding schools, while I was studying for an Academic Diploma. He persuaded me to apply for the newly created post of Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in philosophy of education at the University of Leicester. Once again, I think my motivation was somewhat suspect: I was flattered to be championed by an eminent scholar and I thought University life would be even less demanding than school teaching. (I was right). I remained at Leicester for ten years, being granted a personal Readership (a non-teaching Research Chair) in 1980. Chance was also a factor in my next career move. During 1977/8, while Visiting Professor at the University of Western Ontario, I made many friends and contacts across Canada. One such contact was Kieran Egan. He put a surprising amount of energy into persuading me to move to SFU (and, I suspect, equal energy into making it happen). I originally intended to move to Vancouver as a Visiting Professor for two years. But when the two years were up, I stayed.

It’s fascinating how your career evolved over time and space. Please tell us about your research interests.

The obvious answer is that my area of research is philosophical questions relating to education, which isn’t much more helpful than a mathematician saying he works with numbers. But there is an important point here: while in many disciplines individuals pursue very narrow and specific areas of research, as an historian might specialize in Tudor England, this is seldom the case in philosophy. There are some who devote their lives to a particular problem but many philosophers (and I am one) do not. My interest over the years has variously focused on epistemological, ethical and educational issues, and the common denominator for me has become the nature of philosophy itself: the questions of what philosophy is and why it is important. One can of course define the word “philosophy” in a number of ways, and there are as matter of fact all manner of views on the nature of the beast. My interest is in considering what kind of philosophy is of practical value, noting incidentally but importantly that practical value can be indirect and long-term. My answer is what is generally referred to as “analytic philosophy” – and I really don’t have much interest in or respect for other kinds of “philosophy”.

The essence of analytic philosophy is clarifying and discriminating between ideas (not simply words), noting fine and subtle distinctions and teasing out or “unpacking” concepts. There has recently been a lot of talk about “democracy”, which has ably demonstrated the mess we get into when we don’t understand the nature and need for philosophical analysis. For example, in the UK there has been intense debate on the question of a second referendum on Brexit, and the argument on either side has amounted to nothing more than the cry that the speaker’s preference is the “democratic” way. But this is mere assertion, playing on the evaluative nature of the word. An argument would require explaining in what sense of the word a given procedure would be democratic and the arguing for the value of this particular conception of democratic procedure. Etymologically, the word democracy means “the people’s rule”. The question is, if democracy is regarded as a good thing, how should we reasonably define “people” (twelve- year olds?), how should we interpret “rule” (referenda, appointed representatives?) In other words the philosopher’s job in such a case is to point out that the question at issue is whether there is or is not a good case for a particular practice that can be conceded to be in line with the general admonition that the people shall decide. The question is not “how do you define “democracy”, but “can you articulate in detail a conception of democracy that is worth defending?”

As a philosopher of education, I would argue that the foremost question for any educator must be “what constitutes being well-educated”. Without some clear answer to this question, it is logically impossible for anybody to assess the success or failure of any activity, and one of the major problems in educational research generally is that practitioners and researchers often don’t have any such idea clearly articulated. They can tell you that a certain type of teaching correlates highly with student success on a history exam. But they cannot tell you whether success on an exam of the type in question is of educational value (and they generally can’t establish that the correlation is due to cause and effect, but that’s another story). Since most people agree that being educated has something to do with knowledge, it follows that having thought-out answers to philosophical questions such as what is knowledge, how is it to be distinguished from opinion, and what knowledge is most pertinent to our ideal become of central importance. The fundamental value of philosophy is that it allows us to see through absurd ideas such as that critical thinking is a generic skill that can be developed by exercise on any material and then exhibited in all walks of life. The reality of course being that it is specific, such that it may be displayed in one area but not another, and that it involves understanding and high competence in the field in question.

Indeed, it is important to problematize concepts of education and what it means to be well-educated. How would you explain the impact of your work to a non-expert?

It is difficult to be certain about what impact one’s work has. There have been instances where philosophy has affected policy and practice. For example, in the UK in the late seventies there was a decided shift towards “progressive” education; this movement, thought it may have had various merits, was based upon some very muddled thinking that was decisively exposed by philosophers, and the trend was clearly halted. But by and large it seems, sadly, that there is little direct impact at least in the short term. For instance, despite what I wrote in the previous section about the total misconception on which teaching critical thinking is usually based, courses and books advocating the teaching of critical thinking as if it were a generic skill still abound.

What suggestion would you like to give to educators/practitioners?

Stop relying uncritically on the findings of the social sciences. There is not much doubt that psychology, particularly in the US, and sociology, particularly in the UK, have far more impact on educators than philosophy does. But the very idea that there can be a scientific study of human interaction that meets the criteria demanded by the natural sciences is highly questionable. Beyond that I would urge all educators to stop and ask themselves what exactly their idea of the well-educated person is and how the particular subject they teach is supposed to contribute to that end. An answer to the latter question should throw some light on more and less  sensible ways to teach the subject.

We are almost at the end of our interview. So, how is life after retirement?

Well, I’m not missing going to work! In the last few years I had grown increasingly frustrated with the job: students taking my courses without any motivation other than a requirement to add an arts course to their resume; students whose English language ability was nowhere near adequate to studying philosophy; increasing attempts to curtail what one should and shouldn’t say for fear of giving offence and other politically correct nonsense; and in general increased bureaucratic interference. Were I starting my career today, I would choose to remain in school teaching rather than University teaching.

That said, my retirement didn’t get off to a very auspicious start: I developed a spot of skin cancer, had to get a hearing aid, and suffer from Dupuytren’s disease: I also gave up playing indoor soccer which was a wrench having organized a team and played more or less every week for nearly fifty years; and now of course we are all facing the Corona virus. But there is still music of all kinds and literature, and that’s enough for me.

Do I miss SFU? No. But I am grateful for my nearly forty years there, the vast majority of which were both rewarding and happy times.

Thank you very much for your time Dr. Barrow. We wish you good health and happiness.