Michael Oakeshott on Rationalism and How Practice Trumps Theory

08/04/2013 12:09 BST | Updated 05/06/2013 10:12 BST

Ok I get it: the title of this piece reads very high and esoteric. But please do bear with me. I really think we're onto something.

What I want to do today is to discuss Michael Oakeshott and explore how he can speak to schools and educators. But before we enter into an analysis of Oakeshott and schools we need to address two points.

Firstly, we need to ask: who is Michael Oakeshott?

Well Michael Oakeshott was an English political philosopher of the conservative tradition. He died in 1990 and was all about small government, individual liberty, political conservatism and economic liberalism. Think Edmund Burke; or the Austrian political economist, Freidrich Hayek without the abstract potentialities.

Though it would be wrong to think that Oakeshott is like any other political theorist or philosopher: because he isn't. He is entirely unique as a conservative thinker. As Andrew Sullivan of The Dish said, 'Michael Oakeshott's philosophy fits no ideological or party label.'

You can read Michael Oakeshott's personal manifesto, 'On Being Conservative' here.


Now we need to ask: what is rationalism?

To my mind - being a big supporter of plain English - the word rationalism a prime example of jargon and academic speak.

But in spite of the academic smokescreen, rationalism is actually a simple concept: it's a land of theory, thoughts and ideas. A place of mental activity and head exercise: where the big thinkers discuss political, social and economic ideas about how we should live and be governed.

Rationalism is the theoretical 'thinking' realm as opposed to the practical 'doing' realm.

Ok prelude over, it's now time to talk Oakeshott, his critique of rationalism and how practical 'doing' precedes theoretical 'thinking'. And to do so requires us to refer to his much under-read book; Oakeshott's critique of rationalism, 'Rationalism in Politics and other essays'.

In three words what the book is about is: pragmatism over ideology. And it's this Oakeshottian concept that's at the core premise of this piece.

In 'Rationalism and Politics' Oakeshott argued that philosophy was of limited worth for solving real world political problems.

Taking this precept it's my argument that philosophy and theoretical thinking is of limited worth for young people who will need to tackle real world, on-the-job problems.

Young people in second and third level education need context and methodology over abstract instructions. Passive theoretical learning should only be one of half of a person's knowledge and as Gene Callahan has said of Oakeshott's critique, theory should actually follow practical learning.

Gene Callahan wrote in the Foundation for Economic Education:

"Oakeshott argues that the rationalist, in awarding theory primacy over practice, has gotten things exactly backwards: The theoretical understanding of some activity is always the child of practical know-how, and never its parent."

Gene Callahan added:

"Oakeshott contends that the essence of an accomplished practitioner's skill cannot be conveyed to a neophyte through explicit technical instructions, but instead must be learned tacitly, during a period of intimate apprenticeship."

It is important to note that apprenticeships are making a comeback following The Richard Review.

Gene Callahan in his writings went on to offer a concrete example of why Oakeshott argued real world learning trumps theoretical learning:

'The rationalist cook is oblivious to the years that the skilled chef has spent establishing intimate relationships with his ingredients and tools, and tries to get by in the kitchen solely with what he can glean from a cookbook. As a result, he botches most of the dishes he attempts. However, his repeated failures typically do not lead him to suspect that his fundamental method of proceeding might be faulty. Instead, each disappointment only spurs the rationalist to search for a new, improved, and even more "rational" book of recipes.'

This was echoed by Andrew Sullivan who articulated Oakeshott's passion for practice over theory:

'What fascinated him was someone who had mastered something practical -- the experienced cook, the skilled gardener, the calm midwife. Probably his most profound influence in this respect was Taoist thought, which sees in steady, accumulated practical skill more wisdom and peace than a thousand books.'

In Experience and Its Modes and in his own words Michael Oakeshot said of practical experience:

'Great achievements are accomplished in the mental fog of practical experience.'

So as I've argued before, here, here, here, here, here, here,here, here, here, here and here, it's now a simple fact that the rationalist project of all-theory learning is now defunct.

So what we need is a second and third level education experience that is centered on practical, real world 'doing' that is complimented by theoretical 'thinking'. A education system that is a blend of pragmatism and rationalism.

As it was suggested by Harvard education specialist, Tony Wagner in the New York Times recently, no longer can education and the work place be two hostile tribes.

But what we need is even more than this simple realignment.

The world has changed. The irresistible rise of technology and the continuing reach of globalisation has utterly disrupted the old order.

So what education needs is a radical adjustment to the new world order. For a young person so be effectively and properly aligned to the ultra-competitive and globalised digital economy, the schooling system must adapt to the new world order.

So not only do we need an education system ground in practical learning which is then followed by rationalism, we also need a new system of schooling altogether.

As Tony Wagner wrote in his book "Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World":

"More than a century ago, we 'reinvented' the one-room schoolhouse and created factory schools for the industrial economy. Reimagining schools for the 21st-century must be our highest priority. We need to focus more on teaching the skill and will to learn and to make a difference and bring the three most powerful ingredients of intrinsic motivation into the classroom: play, passion and purpose."

The conclusion is brief. Firstly, the passive, book-centered schooling system of rationalist policy makers has in recent years been utterly misguided.

Teenagers and young adults need to be readily prepared for the job market. To meet this demand schooling must be active and must foster experience-born, real-world proficiency. Book smart, desk monkeys are not immediately alignable to the job market.

Secondly, the world has utterly changed and so education must change. We are witnessing the passing of the old order as the industrial economy declines; and what we are seeing is the embedding of the new order - the digital and networked economy.

These are tectonic changes driven by technology and the ingenuity of man and so education systems must adapt to meet the new changes.