What does a sociologist have to say about the pedagogy of philosophy in higher education?

In comments on an earlier post, Michael Barany argued that philosophy cannot solve its own problems without help from from other disciplines.  Here, sociologists of education Nick Melliss and Claudia Lapping give their view.


As sociologists, one of our main interests is the organisation and function of knowledge in relation to social structures, institutions and identities. Sociologists since Emile Durkheim, one of the most influential founders of the discipline, have been interested in the role of culture, ritual and everyday social practices in binding a society together. Culture, ritual and social practices are here understood as forms of shared knowledge that sustain or bind together collectivities of individuals. Research in the sociology of education, our particular field, focuses its investigations on the organisation and transmission of curricular knowledge within education institutions. We aim to de-naturalise both curricula and pedagogy: to show how they are constructed within, and in the ongoing interests of, the existing, hierarchical organisation of the social world.

Nick is currently completing his doctoral thesis, looking at university seminars in three different disciplines: Midwifery, Classics and Education. In particular, he’s looking at the construction of sacred and profane knowledge, drawing on the work of both Durkheim and Basil Bernstein, a key figure in 20th century sociology of education. For both theorists, sacred knowledge is simultaneously abstracted from the everyday and deeply implicated in both social structure and individual identities. Nick’s analysis of the seminars that he observed can help to illustrate the meaning of the sacred for both professional and academic identities.

In the Midwifery programme that he observed, students were explicitly encouraged to reflect on what it means to gradually take on the identity of a midwife. Nick’s analysis explores the relationship between sacred knowledge and identity in sessions on reflective practice. These were relatively unstructured sessions where students discussed both their own experience, and ideals of the midwife as ‘expert of the norm’ and as someone who works in between the more scientific medical world and the intimate experience of pregnant women. This complex combination of experience and ideals can be understood as the sacred knowledge of the midwife. For the classicist, in the Homer translation tutorial that Nick observed, the sacred knowledge was not, as you might initially expect, formal grammar, or even knowledge of key texts or sources. Rather, Nick argues, the sacred knowledge was the need to doubt, to continually refer to dictionaries and other sources, to check and refine the translation of a particular word or phrase: although the apparent focus of the tutorial was to check the student’s translation of a section of the Iliad, throughout the session the tutor continually modelled doubt, curiosity and the process of checking. Nick’s interpretation of these instances reveals the way the sacred seems to define something unique about what it means to take on the identity of either midwife, or translator. This leads to the question: What is the sacred knowledge of the philosopher today?

It is also worth noting that, while the transmission of sacred knowledge on the midwifery course is relatively formalised, with significant time allotted to reflective practice within the curriculum, the necessity of doubt in the process of translation was not formally recorded in the curriculum documentation of Classics degree. In the more traditional disciplinary fields, perhaps, the most sacred element is not spoken or named out loud. Rather, students are expected to gradually orient themselves to the identity of the discipline, without explicit teaching. While the naming of the sacred element will always risk reduction, the oversimplification of a unique and almost magical element of identity, the refusal to name risks exclusion. This observation is in line with the argument of Basil Bernstein’s classic paper, ‘Class and Pedagogies: Visible and Invisible’. Bernstein argues, very persuasively, that the apparently open, egalitarian child-centred pedagogies of the 1970’s were in fact modelled on middle-class cultures and excluded children from other cultures, who couldn’t interpret the unspoken rules by which they were being assessed. Again, perhaps, the question for university teachers today, and for teachers of philosophy, is: who might we be excluding in the, to us, self-evident and open practices of our classrooms?

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8 thoughts on “What does a sociologist have to say about the pedagogy of philosophy in higher education?

  1. I recently had a discussion with a colleague about why it is necessary to make it explicit that an essay question requires a critical argument and philosophical judgment. Sometimes, we write essay questions that sound like they call for a description or a piece of history of ideas (“Was Aristotle a dualist after all?”) but the ‘sacred knowledge’ is that in philosophy, you must evaluate and argue. Not everyone knows this.

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    1. I think that’s probably right. An additional aspect might be the way forms of evaluation and argument are embedded in, or positioned within structures of status and identity. The experiential, emotional , or ‘unscientific’ aspect of midwives knowledge, and its awkward liminal position between higher status professions, is made explicit. Part of the sacred knowledge of philosophy, perhaps, is the fact that ‘objective’ evaluation and argument is heard and experienced differently in and from different bodies. So the implicit and unrealistic expectation of those adversarial seminars is that bodies don’t count, we’re all respected, etc… part of the sacred knowledge of philosophy, perhaps, that is not accessible to all, might be an assumption that you deserve to be listened to and that your opinion deserves respect – which serves as armour in traditional, intellectually confrontational philosophy seminars – a social aspect of sacred knowledge that is hidden. Bernstein, talking about traditional, insular disciplines, says: ‘The sacred face sets them apart, legitimises their otherness and creates dedicated identities with no reference other than their calling. The profane face indicates their external linkage…’ (2000:54)

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  2. Indeed. And that suggests one reason why coursework is popular: it’s a leveller. Every-body looks the same on paper (except they don’t read the same, but students may not know this, either).

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    1. I’m sure they do know, maybe not in exactly the same way their reader might see it , but I’m pretty sure they know they’re visible , exposed, in their writing – There’s a few interesting empirical questions here : about sacred positions in speaking and writing; and about sacred and profane readings of student texts… etc…

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      1. yes. Today I will use a lecture to try to convey the effect of reading a stack of essays, precisely to try to close the gap between the marker-readers’s reading and the student-author’s reading.

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