A tribute to Kevin Harris, philosopher of education

Michael A. Peters et al.

Kevin Harris

Kevin Harris began a lifelong connection with teaching and teacher education when he took up a ‘Teacher Education Scholarship’ with the NSW Department of Education in 1955 at the age of 16. Two years later, he ‘graduated’ and began duties as a primary school teacher; a position he followed for 3 years before a number of administrative mix-ups eventually found him posted as Mathematics Master at Newtown Boys Junior High School. During the 7 years in which he held this position, his skills as a teacher were noticed by both the Department of Education which gave him accelerated promotion, and by the nearby Sydney Teachers College (STC) which progressively employed him as a ‘Demonstration Teacher,’ a training mentor to groups of its students, part-time lecturer and finally as a full-time lecturer in Educational Theory and Sociology.

In order to ‘justify’ holding these positions, Kevin was required to undertake relevant studies as a part-time student at Sydney University (SU), from where he gained a BA with First Class Honours in English and Education in 1968, in the latter stages of which he was both a student, as well as a teacher and tutor, in the same subjects. While teaching at STC, eventually substituting Sociology with the first Philosophy of Education courses taught there, Kevin continued his studies in Education, and graduated from SU as Master of Education with First Class Honours and the University Medal in 1973. It was also during this period that he worked closely with fellow lecturers Bill Andersen and Dr Anna Hogg, and A/P Les Brown of the University of New South Wales (UNSW), as part of an ad hoc group which became in turn the Planning Committee and then the Foundation Executive of the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia (PESA). Kevin has always taken little credit for the formation of PESA, describing himself as the ‘office boy that helped the others realise their dream’ but Les Brown was sufficiently impressed as to offer him a Senior Lectureship in philosophy of education at UNSW and the post of unofficial Assistant Editor of Educational Philosophy and Theory (EPAT), both of which he readily accepted.

Kevin remained at UNSW for a further 16 years, with one foot firmly planted in Les Brown’s Department (it was strictly a Graduate School consisting of Teacher Education and Master’s level courses), and the other restlessly tramping the more radical, vibrant and progressive grounds of his alma mater. It was in this latter venue that he began to feel the first small tremor of answers to the questions that had continuously undermined the foundations on which his entire previous professional development and seeming success had rested on: that If schools and teachers were serving such a lauded educational role, how could it be that so many of the population remained uneducated and/or spent their post-school lives as alienated workers in menial and often mindless employment. Kevin sought to address this problem by beginning a PhD in an area considered unconventional at the time within philosophy of education – the political relationship between schools, educational institutions, and the social construction of knowledge. His studies took him back to his undergraduate work on Karl Mannheim’s PhD thesis, The Structural Determinants of Epistemology, and forward to the social philosophy and epistemology of Marx and then the neo-Marxists of the Althusserian school. This, continually stimulated by the intra-disciplinary vibrant academic context of SU and colleagues such as Jim Walker and Michael Matthews, led Kevin to develop a trenchant criticism of analytic philosophy and the notion of ‘neutrality,’ not just in philosophy but also in the production and legitimation of knowledge, the provision of schooling and the interconnections between educational success and social mobility and advancement. When he sprung this, in his first-ever paper to a PESA Annual Conference (Auckland, 1976), an instant rift occurred in PESA, and it has been claimed that this was the point where the ‘traditional’ analytic approach to philosophy of education began to lose much of its legitimation and where PESA began to carve out its own vibrant and independent identity.

As 1976 progressed, Kevin followed this paper with a whirlwind of activity. Aided by Peter Stevens, Jim Walker and Bob Mackie, he organized a Conference highlighting the work and presence of Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis which led to the formation of Sydney’s ‘Radical Education Group,’ he founded the journal Radical Education Dossier (which ran without any institutional support for 30 years and 69 issues), he completed his PhD thesis, and he wrote the complete draft of a book critical of what had generally passed as philosophy of education, which was subsequently published by Routledge as Education and Knowledge. The success of Education and Knowledge raised Kevin’s national and international profile significantly, but it still left his central quest incomplete. There remained the matter of ‘teachers,’ and how they fitted into this system. Kevin sought to fill this gap with Teachers and Classes, and the two books, along with the many papers he was now publishing (near to 150 in all), resulted in numerous invitations to address National and International Conferences and to take up short-term visiting positions at a number of Universities. Over the next decade and a half, he held Visiting Fellowships and Professorships at the Universities of Auckland, London, Sussex, Birmingham, Malaysia and Hong Kong, and he also presented Keynotes at further Universities and professional institutions across the UK as well as in Denmark, Italy, Singapore and Israel. In the midst of this, he also wrote his third book, Sex, Ideology and Religion, the first book by a PESA member to be re-printed in Japanese. In 1990, Kevin took up the position of Professor of Educational Policy at Macquarie University, again attracted by the close links the Faculty there had forged between academic studies in education and teacher education. Thus, 17 years after teaching the first courses in philosophy of education at STC, he introduced the discipline to Macquarie from undergraduate to doctoral level.

By the time of his retirement in 2000, Kevin had overseen Philosophy of Education becoming an integral and compulsory (if, sadly, not enduring) part of all teacher education courses in what were then Sydney’s three major universities. Although it was not always immediately evident in his diverse writings, Kevin was a deeply committed Marxist. He argued that, since all knowledge, and the manner of its transmission, was political, then, rather than seeking neutrality or some elites’ version of ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world,’ humanity might be better served if the production and transmission of knowledge were directed to overcoming human suffering, exploitation and inequality. The means towards achieving that, he argued, lay in informed rather than militant Marxism, and that bringing it about was the job of the people themselves, led as and if necessary, by teachers who understood and shared theirs and their learners’ experience. It was thus hardly an accident that Kevin’s fourth book, Teachers Constructing the Future, written in 1995 – the year he was elected as the first Fellow of PESA – showed an increasing debt to the work of Gramsci. Kevin never lost interest in, or hands-on activity with, schooling and teachers; and, as a number of politicians and NSW Ministers of Education can testify to, he remained persistent in his advocacy of increased professionalism of teachers and the need for more intellectually rigorous and inclusive forms of teacher education.

Kevin Harris: The early years

Michael R. Matthews (School of Education, University of New South Wales)

It has been my good personal and professional fortune to have known Kevin for a little over half-a-century. We met in 1969 when I, as a first-year science teacher, began my part-time MEd degree in philosophy of education at the University of Sydney. Kevin, in the thesis stage of his honours MEd degree, had the previous year been appointed an education lecturer at Sydney Teachers College (STC). We were both influenced by two mightily impressive Christian philosophers of education: Bill Andersen (1924–2019) at the university and Anna Hogg (1910–2011) at the college. Our careers moved along parallel paths, with mine always a step or two behind Kevin’s. In 1972, I became a colleague of Kevin’s at Teachers College. In 1974 he was appointed senior lecturer at University of New South Wales. At the beginning of 1975, I joined him and remained a colleague till his appointment as professor of education at Macquarie University. This bare chronology does not capture the intellectual excitement or political colours of Kevin’s early formation in, and contributions to, philosophy of education. This brief tribute will provide a small window onto that marvellous niche in the discipline’s history.

Kevin, as a new STC lecturer, was invited by Anna Hogg, Bill Andersen and Les Brown to planning meetings for the soon-to-be (1970) Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia (PESA). At the time Les Brown was building a philosophy of education unit at UNSW whilst founding and editing Educational Philosophy and Theory journal. Bill Andersen brought the London School of analytic philosophy of education to Sydney. He was a gentle, non-dogmatic, thoughtful teacher who in those years of the late 60s and early 70s encouraged an enormously enthusiastic, and one can probably say gifted, group of graduate students to apply themselves to philosophical issues in education. There was a core group of perhaps 10–15 students in the MEd philosophy of education programme. Most subsequently became professors of education: Kevin Harris, Brian Hill, Jim Walker, Paul Hager, Gabrielle Lakomski, Bob Mackie and Colin Evers come to mind, but there were others. They were heady days. For four years or so, each two months, the Thursday evening MEd class would morph into the Sydney Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia (PESA) branch meeting. Local philosophers and educators such as David Armstrong, John Kleinig, George Molnar, Wallis Suchting, Paul Crittenden, Phillip Steedman, Martin Bibby, Peter Stevens and Jim Gribble presented papers, as did visitors such as Richard Peters and Paul Hirst. Educational sociologists such as Robert Young and historians such as Bob Petersen and David Hogan also presented. Attendance varied from 25 to 50 for each meeting. As well as the evening meetings, there were Saturday afternoon readings of distributed papers, some at Kevin’s Ferry Road, Glebe home. Heady days indeed. An example of the rich fare: on 12 July 1973, Wallis Suchting presented a paper to the branch titled ‘Capitalism and Education: Some Marxist Bearings.’ The references cited include Althusser, Aptheker, Blackburn, Bowles, Gintis, Freire, Gramsci and Wittgenstein. When Suchting spoke, everyone listened very carefully. As was the tradition, the paper was roneoed and distributed at the meeting. Fifty years later, my copy (on foolscap paper) is still in my files. This rich milieu of philosophy of science, Marxism and education was important in Kevin’s intellectual formation. The ingredients are on full display in his first book Education and Knowledge (Routledge, 1979), which was written through 1976. They are less displayed, but contribute to most of his subsequent books and articles.

Tribute to Kevin Harris

Eileen Baldry (Deputy Vice-Chancellor Equity Diversity and Inclusion, Professor of Criminology, UNSW Sydney)

The lecturer looked young; he was enthusiastic, engaging, very smart and demanding of us that we think critically about education. It was 1969. I had just finished a BA (Philosophy and History) at Sydney University and was starting my DipEd year when I met Kevin, the lecturer in sociology and philosophy of education in one of the dilapidated teaching rooms in the old teachers’ college building on the grounds of Sydney University. It was the most exciting and illuminating course in the DipEd. He introduced us to alternative and radical forms of thinking and practice in education and argued for an equitable public education system. He encouraged us to attend lectures by visiting luminaries, some of whom we argued with after the lecture. I drank it all in and took into my educational practice a commitment to equity in education and to an attempt not to reproduce class and power structures, an enterprise I found frustrating and difficult. It is still a goal.

How marvellous it was, when I returned to university (this time at UNSW) for postgraduate study in 1987, to find myself in a Master’s class in ideology and education taught by Kevin. Again, he required that we stretch our intellects by introducing us to infuriatingly demanding French theorists such as Althusser and Bourdieu, as well as to their application of Marxist theory in education. We discussed, debated and wrestled with their concepts and those Kevin had brought together in his book Education and Knowledge (1979); I still have my copy of that book. There he brings together the results of his own theoretical development, informed by these and other theorists. Again, it was exciting to have to interrogate my teaching practice of the previous two decades, questioning whether I, and the systems in which I had worked, were transmitting a structured misrepresentation of reality (the major theme in his book). Returning to my UG philosophy and debates we had had during the DipEd, Kevin reignited an examination of epistemology, arguing that all knowledge is theory-laden, and that ideology frames our views of the world; that there is no such thing as an objective interpretation of social or scientific research. I have taken those insights into my academic teaching and research as a critical criminologist. I have been grateful to Kevin since that class in my DipEd over 50 years ago, for opening up a radical world of thinking and practice in education.

Thank you, Kevin.

Kevin Harris: A memoir

Patricia White (Honorary Senior Research Fellow, UCL Institute of Education)

There are some people you’re always glad to see pop their head round the door, see their handwriting on an envelope or, latterly, see their name in the sender box. Kevin is one of those people for me – always interesting, lively, kind. We haven’t met often over the years or even been regularly in touch via email but when we do, it is always the same, we just pick up where we left off.

I first encountered Kevin, second-hand as it were, when he gave his now renowned ‘Peters on Schooling’ paper at the PESA conference in 1976 and my friend and colleague Paul Hirst was in the audience. An enthusiastic blue airmail letter arrived telling me about this event and Paul’s conviction that this was an important critique which I would be intrigued and excited to read. Meanwhile before Kevin himself appeared in the UK, more reports arrived of a firebrand, a Marxist, a wild iconoclast, the Australian ‘bad boy’ of Philosophy of Education – think perhaps of the Philosophy of Education’s version of the musical world’s ‘bad boy,’ Nigel Kennedy. Well, in both cases the badge of ‘bad boy’ turns out to be more a badge of honour. Certainly, much of what Kevin was saying then presaged volumes of critique of neoliberalism which were only to emerge decades later.

I always relished Kevin’s visits to the UK, the formal and informal encounters. I also enjoyed our engagements as scholarly colleagues. I was particularly pleased to be invited by Wendy Kohli to join in a three-way ‘critical conversation’ with Kevin and Jim Giarelli on Educating for Public Life in the book, Critical Conversations in Philosophy of Education (Routledge, 1995). I felt that Kevin and I were very much batting on the same side, to use a metaphor Kevin might appreciate.

Aside from the substance, I have always admired (and envied) Kevin’s writing style in its various modes. His writing reels you in, as all the best writers of fiction and non-fiction do. This is true whether it is an academic paper or book or his moving and finely crafted recent memoir of Jim Walker, ‘From the realm where parallel lines meet – Jim Walker: a reminiscence’ (EPAT, 15 February 2021).

I like the way Kevin can surprise me. I remember a meal after an academic occasion on one of Kevin’s visits to London about 30 years ago when the talk turned to whether the academic parents present censored their children’s reading and TV viewing (dubious online content was not an issue in those far-off days) and if so what. People anguished over the issues that sexual and violent content raised. Kevin said the only censorship he exercised was over Disney. No Disney at all in his home. Not really surprising I later reflected, all of a piece with the man and his values. Hardly likely to support the syrupy products of a commercial giant. Perhaps more a Buster Keaton man. Lucky children.

There is a sadness for me in this. I am sad that John and I were not able to accept Kevin’s many warm invitations over the years to visit Australia ‘before we were too old to enjoy it.’ He would have been the excellent guide he promised to be, and we would have had some great discussions.

Tribute to my friend and comrade, Kevin Harris

Dave Hill (Emeritus Professor of Education, Anglia Ruskin University)

I hadn’t heard of Kevin till one day a quarter of a century or more ago, Glenn Rikowski said, ‘Dave, you really should read Kevin Harris’ books. So I did. They resonated so strongly with me, reverberated, reinforced. This is so much sense! I thought and still think. Indefatigably. I grew to love Kevin Harris in a kind of way, his comradeship, his warmth, humour, humanity-intense humanity, and anger at what capitalism and schooling does and has done to working class kids like him and like me – even though we were two (of the limited allowed number of ) ‘successes.’ He influenced me, his first three books coming to, and reinforcing, my own political analytical development. We came to very similar Althusserian and Gramscian Marxist conclusions – and syntheses (e.g. in his 1994 book, Teachers: Constructing the Future), analyses of state, society, economy, education, social/ economic/ educational reproduction, resistance. We came to similar conclusions. We started from similar beginnings.

But more than that, building on what was at first a political/ educational acquaintance over the decades at various education conferences, AERA, BERA, to a friendship, cemented when I visited him and Maureen and his son David at his/Maureen’s house in the suburbs of Sydney a decade or so ago. His warmth, glee, lovingness with Maureen, his acerbic, biting hostility to the Capitalist Order, his comradeship, his indefatigability, I admired all. A relationship pursued through emails, through his numerous and incisive, and, to use the word again, sometimes acerbic, always thoroughly grounded in/knowledgeable about Marxism, reviews of articles submitted to JCEPS, the Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies that I edit.

I was incredibly moved in Kevin’s final email, when he knew he had not long left, when he talked so lovingly of looking after Maureen, with her moving after his passing, to a little cottage in the country that she had always wanted. And moved, too, by his comment that the (class/political/political educational) battle continue, and that he would pass on his/ the fight to me, and that he could think of no better hands. We both know that we, like so many other comrades, do what we can to the best of our abilities Kevin certainly has done. I am not a humble man, and that humbled me, stopped me in my tracks, and I felt honoured. His joy at taking about film and sharing briefly with him his major collection of film CDs – we are both cinephiles. Just to take one example, Italian neorealist films of the 1940s and 50s. I loved his so honest and so powerful autobiography, ‘Not Your Average red Haired Irish Catholic’ (Educational Philosophy and Theory, 2014), his childhood, adolescence, schooling, early teaching, his academic work and life, in particular the Radical Education Dossier he edited/co-edited in Australia for three decades (written about by him in the Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 2014) – ‘made without financial support or institutional backing of any kind, surviving on the will and efforts of changing Editorial Collectives for more than 60 issues over three decades,’ his work and struggles with management at Macquarie University. Such struggles, the lot of many Marxists and academic/trade union activists.

Kevin is, and has been, ‘no nonsense,’ no ‘clever, clever’ showing off, just writing, organising, being a political and academic activist, sticking up for his – for our – beliefs, regardless of the inevitable consequences that Marxists and trade union and academic activists habitually suffer. With his courageous Marxism, what I admire and have admired most, is his humanity, his kindness, his sense of fun. It is as a humane, strong, undeterred comrade that I will remember him.

On Emeritus Professor C. Kevin Harris

David Aspin (Emeritus Professor of Education, School of Graduate Studies, Monash University)

The first time I had heard of the name of Kevin Harris was in my first year at King’s College London, where I had just taken the Chair of Philosophy of Education. In 1979, I received a request from the Editor of the journal Comparative Education to review a recent publication by Routledge, Education and Knowledge by Kevin Harris. I read the book with great interest and was taken by its clarity, style and above all its approach: it was everything other than the ‘analytic’ mode of philosophy of education then long in vogue in the UK and elsewhere and proposing a new approach, involving the kind of post-empiricist thinking I found stimulating. I read the work with great pleasure but found that Kevin’s view towards the end diverged from my own version of post-empiricism and concluded my review with this difference.

Very soon after, I received a response from this author in Australia, taking me up on several points, but in a most collegiate and congenial manner, and asking for a meeting shortly. I met Kevin on a visit of his to London, when we had a lunch together in a café near to King’s College and the Inns of Court. Here it became clear that, however much our views on the way to go for philosophy of education, we got on extremely well and became friends. This was further borne out when I visited Australia in 1982 and met up again with Kevin in Sydney and Townsville at the PESA Conference there. Our points of view may have differed, but we got on famously as friends. That friendship lasted from there on in: on subsequent visits to Australia in 1984, 1986 and 1987 I made a point of seeing and conversing with Kevin, whose responses were always warm, welcoming and receptive.It was no surprise to him that I took up a Chair at Macquarie University in 1988 and saw much more of him then. He had a lovely house in Linfield, where I visited him and his dear wife Maureen often enough for it to become commonplace.

And I reacted with pleasure when, following my departure for Monash in 1969, Kevin followed me at Macquarie as Chair of the Philosophy of Education Policy. Here he continued blazing a trail for philosophy of education in that university too, having already taught the subject with distinction at Sydney and New South Wales universities. And during all this time, he followed the path of the scholar, constantly writing books and learned papers, and always advancing and protecting the interests and needs of his colleagues, students, teachers and their schools. Over the last ten years of his work at Macquarie, and then subsequently, he made an enormous contribution to his scholarly field, and to the needs and purposes of teachers and children. His name and that contribution will be long remembered.

But what fewer people will have known – though plenty enough – was the person he was. He was always smiling, always ready to develop a conversation, always willing to go out of his way to help you, to further what he accepted as your needs and interests, even when a health problem with his knees might have held him back – he was always there to get the car out and take you where you needed to go. I deeply regret that the pandemic has kept me from seeing him these last two and a half years; I should love to have seen that gentle smile and taken his hand, in thanks and memory for a lifelong friendship – one that has given me more than I could ever give him in return.

Kevin Harris

Bruce Haynes (University Fellow at the College of Indigenous Futures, Arts, and Society, Charles Darwin University)

Kevin Harris stubbornly insisted on living in Sydney and I quite reasonably insisted on living in Perth some 4,000 km away, so the only times we met was at Philosophy of Education annual conferences. Neither of us attended every conference so contact was not regular but, for me, those contacts were memorable and rewarding.

I first met Kevin at the 1976 PESA Conference in Auckland. The outstanding memories from that conference have Kevin as a central figure. He, together with Jim Walker, were trenchant critics of Richard Peters and the London School. This was more pointed as Paul Hirst was a participant at the conference. Kevin and Jim were central players at the 1976 PESA AGM, where they took on Les Brown, who owned and initially edited Educational Philosophy and Theory. This began a decade long process in which EPAT was transferred to PESA and, with Jim as Editor, acquired a commercial publisher. If he had done nothing else, these contributions alone would justify Kevin being regarded as a major contributor to the development of PESA and philosophy of education more generally.

For those of us separated from Kevin by distance and/or time, reading his column on PESA Agora is highly recommended, as it gives a far more detailed account of his major contribution to PESA and philosophy of education. His role as a junior academic in the founding of PESA in Sydney during 1969/70 is noteworthy. His part with several others in the activity that led to the creation of Radical Education Dossier (RED) was important in providing a cutting-edge critique of various aspects of schooling and supported those actively seeking to make changes to the system. The 1970s in Australia was a period of vigorous intellectual dispute and of teacher activism and Kevin was a major contributor to both. I found my review copy of Teachers Constructing the Future (1994), Teachers and Classes: A Marxist Analysis (1982) and a signed copy of Education and Knowledge (1979) unintentionally sitting quietly next to R. S. Peters’s Authority, Responsibility and Education.

When I met Kevin at conferences I found him to be a pleasant and stimulating person. In more recent years, his PESA Agora column and personal emails have given me a richer appreciation of him. May I take this opportunity to thank him for his contribution to my intellectual life, for his contribution to PESA, and for his contribution to Australian education.

Kevin Harris

John White (Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Education, UCL Institute of Education)

I remember Kevin as a frequent and always welcome visitor to the London Institute of Education. In his Education and Knowledge, he writes

Now that this work is published, it is more than likely that expert educationalists will at first ignore it, and then, if it doesn’t go away, will turn to print themselves and delegitimate it (bad reviews in respectable journals, etc), since it cannot be accommodated within the prevailing ideology that they maintain and sustain. (p. 184)

Kevin was right that his work made little impression on us London philosophers of education at that time − 1979. Most of us had moved away by then from the style of philosophising that Richard Peters had introduced in the 1960s, and even Peters himself could write in 1983 that, by 1975, he himself had become dissatisfied by the analytic approach he had favoured, seeing it now as something rather scholastic, and held that philosophy of education should engage with ‘more substantive issues in moral, social and political philosophy’ (p. 224). Despite our shift away from the earlier paradigm, the Marxist approach that Kevin followed in his work was uncongenial to most of us and his positive recommendation – that one should fight the ideological control over education exercised by capitalism by ‘engaging in revolutionary practice’ (p. 190) – cut little ice with us. This was especially true for us in the UK, since, in 1979, we had had a Labour government for most of the time since 1964 and were used to other ways of trying to keep capitalist excesses at bay. In those days, there were hopes that left-wing governments would become the norm, perhaps interspersed by brief periods of Tory rule. No one imagined then the forty-plus years of (still ongoing) neoliberalism ahead, punctuated by a not wholly unsympathetic Labour government under Blair.

Looking back on Education and Knowledge from 2022, I find its critique of ideological education strikes all sorts of chords today. Since Thatcher’s policy change in 1988, we have had a national curriculum for England, whose present rationale – in terms of such things as acquainting students with the best that has been thought and said – can be seen a smokescreen, or in the words of Kevin’s subtitle a ‘structured misrepresentation of reality,’ obscuring what state education is basically about. The curriculum is now set by ministers and tailored to the demands of the economy. This is done by a system of testing and examination from an early age. The curriculum of traditional subjects, largely unchanged from the grammar school curriculum of 1902, is based on knowledge transmission ideally suited for assessment of this sort. Students are filtered out through the exam system, as Kevin stressed in 1979, into those en route for higher education and highly paid jobs within a capitalist economy, and those needed for less well-paid, including menial jobs. More affluent families can use the mechanisms of parental choice and local league tables to try to ensure that their children get into the highest performing local schools. We are less affected now than when Kevin was writing by the ideology of innate differences in IQ, but the same sorting function operates, and now more subtly, partly via the ideology of ‘equality of opportunity’ designed to show that life’s losers have had their chance and for whatever reason have failed to take advantage of it. I now read Kevin’s book with new eyes – and am grateful to him for what has turned out, at least for us in England, to be a prescient account of our present situation.

Kevin Harris

Colin Lankshear (Adjunct Professor, Mount Saint Vincent University)

During my first year of full time academic employment, I attended the Philosophy of Education Society of Australia’s annual conference in Auckland (1976). At the time, I was wrestling with the first chapter of my doctoral thesis, and this was my first international conference. It left me with indelible memories of Kevin Harris presenting his paper ‘Peters on Schooling’ and participating during question time for a paper on creativity. My immediate impression was of an educational philosopher advancing irrefutable critiques: an extended critique in his prepared paper, and an impromptu question time critique that clearly drew on similar resources of knowledge and understanding to those informing his paper.

Witnessing these critiques in action hit me like the proverbial wall and I quietly asked myself, “How do you get to be able to advances such effective critiques, particularly on the spot?” It was a momentous question for me at the time, and a genuine puzzle. While I could identify the form of some of the kinds of moves that were being made – such as spotting inconsistencies and slides within an argument, spotting contradictions, and naming ambiguities – it seemed very clear to me that a lot of “other stuff” had to be in place in order to spot the points for making the moves to the greatest effect. There was obviously much more to it than philosophical technique, but how much more, and of what? These kinds of critiques were not being advanced at the time from within analytical philosophy of education, the approach that Richard Peters was writing out of.

The memories were indeed indelible, they remained clear and fresh – they were palpable and graphic – and I kept coming back to them over the years (and still do). More than a decade later, and by then working in a different field, I identified them as classic instances of what Jim Gee was calling ‘powerful literacy,’ in the sense of being able to use the language and other resources and ways of a discourse in order to critique some dominant discourse and the ways that dominant discourse constitutes us as persons and situates us within society. Although not explicit in the ‘Peters on Schooling’ paper, in the way it became very explicit in his landmark book Education and Knowledge, Kevin was able to engage in a form of ideology critique because he grasped the material connection between analytical philosophy of education – the dominant discourse of educational philosophy at the time – and the Liberal Conservative ideology infusing Peters’ account of schooling and masquerading as outcomes of conceptual analysis. Kevin could see this connection and target contradictions, tensions, slides, and mystifications because he had a place to stand outside the discourse, increasingly grounded in a Marxist perspective. This perspective enabled understanding of how ideologies are blind to themselves, how they work in everyday life, and how they inevitably harbour contradictions. It also offered methodological approaches for making these things apparent.

Of course, this was not simply a matter of academic preferences and critiques. The stakes were always much higher than coherence and consistency, logic and, even, values. Rather, they spoke directly to the structured unequal distribution of social goods; to how such distributions are legitimated and become accepted; and, moreover, to how even seemingly sophisticated academic work can unwittingly abet both by functioning as supportive rhetoric. Kevin’s account of supportive rhetoric has challenged me for more than 40 years, and in terms of a striving for personal accountability it has been a faithful, if demanding, taskmaster. For example, at what point does continuing to talk about promoting critical literacy in classrooms keep alive a myth that societies like our own could tolerate even a significant minority of critically literate people? To appropriate Kevin’s observation about Peters’ ideal of the educated person, ‘they would be a menace to the society which created them.’ At what point does researching possibilities for pursuing equitable education through increased use of increasingly sophisticated technologies in classrooms mask the fact that it scarcely matters a jot what we do with such technologies if official education standards and assessment practices are inimical to expansive learning?

This is not a matter of being pessimistic or defeatist. Quite the reverse, in fact. The kind of philosophy of education Kevin Harris taught and practised is a call to resist deluding ourselves and falling back on slogans, formulae, quick fixes, and whistling in the dark. It is a call to understand as clearly and comprehensively as we can what might be possible educationally given the wider circumstances, structural constraints, powerful interests, and contours of ideological formation within which we are working as educators; and to pursue the possible with all the clarity, energy and creative praxis we can generate.

Nobody made it more clear what we need to do in order to prepare ourselves for this kind of challenge than Kevin Harris. He did the hard yards, stared it down, and has truly earned his reputation.

Kevin Harris

Hugh Lauder (Professor of Education, University of Bath)

We make our academic lives on the shoulders of others. In many occupations such a statement would seem trite, but, for academics, it points to something that goes beyond the career ladder. Our identities are so closely tied to what we research and write that the influence of intellectual mentors has profound implications for who we are. As such, Kevin Harris has a unique place in my life.

The first time I met him was in Brisbane in 1978 at the philosophy of education conference. There were many young aspirant philosophers there, giving first papers and with whom I had more than a few good evenings, including Fazal Rizvi and Colin Lankshear. After a hard first night, I met Kevin, in a manner of speaking. You hadn’t appeared the following morning for the first session, a star of that conference, so a posse came looking for you! Your head appeared from an upstairs window looking equally worse for ware and roundly abused us for waking you! You woke the street as your verbal shots rang out!

You were one of the leaders of a group of Marxist philosophers of education, along with Jim Walker, Michael Matthews and Colin Evers, who were turning philosophy of education on its head: we might say from idealism to materialism. To that point, the dominant philosophy was that of the London School, led by Richard Peters and Paul Hirst. I’d been trained by them and was horrified to find, when I reflected, that my MA dissertation could have been written by any Peters’ clone. It had the style and tropes of the London School. Teaching in Peckham, then one of the harder areas of inner London, while crossing the river to study at the Institute of Education, had created an acute dissonance. So, returning to Australia via Aotearoa New Zealand enabled me to cut loose the straight jacket of the London School and embrace a philosophical approach that resonated with my educational experience.

Kevin’s influence extended far beyond a Neo-Marxist approach. Knowledge and Education introduced me to Lakatos and the importance of philosophy of science in judging theories and when linked to Realism has guided my intellectual work ever since. After that initial meeting in Brisbane, my life crossed with yours at decisive points that have determined my subsequent career. You were the external examiner for my doctoral thesis and had a sharp exchange with my internal (NZ) examiner, Jim Marshall, over it. The result was that I had an academic career! There was more to come. Years later we were both short listed, with Jenny Ozga, for the Chair, that had been held by Gerald Grace, at Victoria University of Wellington. You recently wrote to me, ‘I believe that the last time we met was over dinner with Jenny Ozga before we all faced the dreaded selection Committee for the Chair at Victoria University: what an amazingly pleasant night among “rivals.”’ It was. In between times, you visited in Christchurch to give a seminar on your book, Teachers and Classes, visited our home and caught up with John Freeman Moir and Taffy Davies, who were Marxist co-theorists at the University of Canterbury.

In all these ways, intellectual mentor, ‘rival’ friend, you have been a profound influence on my life. Fiona Kidman one of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s great writers in recalling her time at writing festivals and on the book reading circuit has this to say: ‘We take away with us fragments of shared lives, the enthusiasm of our readers, a renewed sense of belief in what we are doing. We are less alone when we leave.’ It resonates in my relationship to you and perhaps describes the feeling many academics have when they leave a conference.

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Full Citation Information:
Peters, M. A., Matthews, M. R., Baldry, E., White, P., Hill, D., Aspin, D., Haynes, B., White, J., Lankshear, C., & Lauder, H. (2022). A tribute to Kevin Harris, philosopher of education, Educational Philosophy and Theory. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2022.2060817