Abstracts from the Oxford Review of Education Special issue: Learning to be human: the educational legacy of John Macmurray

Oxford Review of Education

Volume 38, Issue 6, December 2012

Special issue: Learning to be human: the educational legacy of John Macmurray

The Oxford Review of Education is one of the UK’s leading international education journals. It aims to publish important new work in a form that is accessible to a broad educational readership and is committed to deploying the resources of a wide range of academic disciplines in the service of educational scholarship.



Education as if people matter: John Macmurray, community and the struggle for democracy
Michael Fielding
Institute of Education, University of London, UK

The educational writings of John Macmurray, one of the finest philosophers of his generation, have a special relevance for us today. In similar circumstances of international crisis he argues for the central importance of education addressing fundamental issues of human purpose—how we lead good lives together, the emphasis on wisdom rather than knowledge alone, the advancement of a truly democratic culture, and the overriding importance of community in human flourishing. A pioneering advocate of education of the emotions, he champions the development of imagination, spontaneity and authenticity as key to educating ‘the capacity for change itself’. For Macmurray, educators must place relationships and care at the heart of all they do. Overemphasis on technique and its typical separation from wider human purposes is emblematic of much of our contemporary malaise. An inclusive, caring community is the precondition of our human being and becoming. The paper concludes by taking some of Macmurray’s key philosophical insights and developing a framework which enables us to make judgments about whether or not contemporary approaches to education support or diminish our lives as creative, caring human beings within a context of social justice and democratic human fellowship.

John Macmurray’s Learning to Live and the new media, 1931–1949: learning for labour or leisure?
Peter Cunningham
Homerton College, Cambridge, UK

John Macmurray was a public intellectual and an early proponent of popular education through the new medium of radio. National broadcasting of the time was finding its role in the competing cultures of education and entertainment, and significantly one of Macmurray’s first radio projects in 1931–1932 concerned the issue of ‘Learning to Live’. Here he explored the tension between learning for labour and learning for leisure. Public understanding of education over the following two decades was fostered through the media of print and cinema. Three examples are identified here to explore how this ‘conceptual couple’ of ‘learning’ and ‘life’ were treated: a propaganda film (1941) that adopted Macmurray’s title, Learning to live; School and life, an official report published in 1947; and a commercial documentary production in 1949 entitled Education for living. Macmurray conveyed his ‘applied philosophy’ through public broadcasting even before his major academic publications and his use of radio itself demonstrated its potential for learning as leisure activity for a mass audience. As in radio, so in documentary film, and even in official reports new understandings of education had to be accessible and attractive. Appraisal of Macmurray’s work must include an historical examination of new media in the development of educational discourse.

Personal, relational and beautiful: education, technologies and John Macmurray’s philosophy
Keri Facer
University of Bristol, UK

Fifty years ago, the philosopher John Macmurray responded to calls for education to redesign itself around the exigencies of international competition with a robust rebuttal of such instrumentalism. He argued instead that the purpose of education was ‘learning to be human’. This paper explores how Macmurray’s ideas might be applied to contemporary use of technology in education. In so doing, it argues that the use of technologies in education should be guided by the aspiration to create socio-technical practices that are personal (located with the person), relational (a resource for friendship and collaboration) and beautiful (designed to promote reflection and contemplation).

The personal world of schooling: John Macmurray and schools as households
Julian Stern
York St John University, UK

Macmurray’s distinction between communities, which are positive and personal, and societies, which are negative and impersonal, along with his insistence that schools are necessarily communities, like families and friendship groups, provides the basis for his claim that we may act as though we were teaching arithmetic or history, but in fact we are teaching people. Macmurray’s philosophy can be used to reconceive schools as, or as like, households. Schools have an admixture of intimacy (supervised eating and toileting, for example) and professional standards and accountability, making them neither ‘public’ nor ‘private’. The people in schools—staff and students—are and should be treated as close and friendly, whilst schools are also open to the society and communities beyond the schools. Support for seeing schools as households is provided by recent empirical research on intergenerational ‘closeness’—underpinning a non-sexualised version of friendship, as described by Macmurray. Theorising schools as communities like households, this paper indicates some of the implications of Macmurray’s work for contemporary education policy and practice.

Putting persons back into education
Richard Pring
University of Oxford, UK

Both the language of performance management and the target-setting culture of our schools lead to a ‘depersonalisation’ of education—a failure to respect young learners as persons. They become a ‘means’ to some further non-educational ‘end’. John Macmurray challenged this depersonalisation in terms not only of its impoverished educational consequences but also of a fundamental philosophical error in giving primacy to persons as ‘thinkers’ rather than to them as ‘doers’. Not ‘I think, therefore I am’, but ‘I do, therefore I am’.

Love and teaching: renewing a common world
Raimond Gaita
University of Melbourne, Australia

This paper reflects on John Macmurray’s notions of human relations and of persons in relation to their community. It examines the idea that there cannot be other ways of seeking lucidity about what it means to live a human life than by entering into human relations. Learning about value and about what it can mean to live the life of the mind is inseparable from seeing such value and being moved by seeing it in the lives in which it is realised.

The caring relation in teaching
Nel Noddings
Stanford University, USA

According to John Macmurray, ‘teaching is one of the foremost of personal relations’. This paper describes that relation in some detail from the perspective of care ethics. This involves a discussion of the central elements in establishing and maintaining relations of care and trust which include listening, dialogue, critical thinking, reflective response, and making thoughtful connections among the disciplines and to life itself.