Beyond curriculum: Groundwork for a non-instrumental theory of education

Deborah Osberg, Gert Biesta

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper problematizes current thinking about education by arguing that the question of educational purpose is not simply a socio-political question concerned with what the ends should be and why, but can also be understood as a structural question, concerned with the way we understand education’s directional impetus. We suggest that it is possible to understand education as something other than a curricular instrument designed to facilitate a purpose external to itself. We challenge such an instrumental view by arguing that education is an emergent phenomenon with its own unique aesthetic qualities (like art or music); a phenomenon, moreover, that does not simply serve a purpose, but generates the purpose it serves. In this paper we lay down the groundwork for such a non-instrumental understanding of education by combining the notion of emergence with ideas from Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Aristotle’s teleological notion of the ‘ideal’ as self-generated and the Greek notion of ‘paideia.’ This provides an opportunity to theorise education’s directional impetus as the ongoing and open-ended coordination of three realms of human life: the symbolic, the individual and the political. Given the acute political and social dilemmas that instrumental understandings of education bring forth in multicultural, and so called ‘democratic’ and ‘inclusive’ societies, we hope that by opening the possibility to theorise education as a non-instrumental phenomenon, it may become possible to have more fruitful discussion regarding education than endless political debate about what the curricular ends of education should be.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEducational Philosophy and Theory
Early online date13 Apr 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Apr 2020


  • Aristotle
  • affect
  • Cassirer
  • educational purpose
  • emergence


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