Rejuvenating the Idea of a General Theory of Education

In recent years, the Dutch philosopher of education Gert Biesta has juxtaposed two academic traditions in the study and teaching of educational theory – an Anglophone and a Germanophone discourse. In the former, educational theory is seen through the lens of disciplines deemed relevant to education and hence treated as an ‘applied field of study’. In the latter, however, the study of education is afforded the status of an ‘academic discipline in its own right’. This difference implies far-reaching consequences: In the case of Anglophone Education Studies, the concern for educational theory feeds only on the methods and concepts of ‘parent disciplines’ (R.S. Peters) functioning as a contrast medium to render education visible as an object of study. In the case of Pädagogik, the study of education involves methods and concepts specifically generated within contexts of educational theorizing so that educational phenomena may be considered in an ‘educational way’. Biesta argues that this second approach defines education as a basic concept, thus transforming it into the subject of study, not its object. Placed at the centre of its own academic discourse, education (das Pädagogische) can reveal its theoretical potential by initiating the academic study of a more fundamental perspective on anthropological processes of human development (Menschwerdung).
In this paper, I will proceed from Biesta’s bi-paradigmatic assertion with the following objectives in mind:
First, I will argue that Biesta’s comparative analysis of education as either object of study (anglophone case) or subject of study (Germanophone case) is over-simplified and no longer holds true. To demonstrate this point, I will transpose Biesta’s paradigms onto the two discourses pertinent to his assertion, ,Education Studies’ and ,(Allgemeine) Pädagogik’, and show their relationship to have become, in fact, chiasmic not divergent. I will propose that the progressive loss of a General Theory of Education in German discourse appears reversed in the current Anglophone endeavour to place education at the ‘centre of analysis and purpose within the social sciences’ (Stuart Ranson).
Second, I will trace key markers in this cross-over from education’s disciplinary status to its diversifying disintegration (the demise of Allgemeine Pädagogik) and from its extra-disciplinary position as object of study to its new disciplinary status (the emergence of ,New’ Education Studies).
Finally, I will stress the importance of conceptualising education as a discipline-defining concept qua subject of study and consequently the need for both discourses to enter into closer dialogue on this issue.