Remembering Brian Simon 1915-2002

Brian Simon was born one hundred years ago. As is fitting, his life’s work and achievements will be celebrated at the London Institute of Education on Thursday 26th March. From his early battle against the ideology behind IQ testing to his later detailed work on the history and poltics of education, he contributed massively to our understanding. I would like to remember him here through a brief consideration of just one of his many contributions but one which I think retains all its relevance and vitality.

Brian Simon’s book  Does Education Matter? was published in 1985. It was a collection of articles and speeches from 1977-84. The first chapter, which I will consider below, is a speech entitled Can Education Change Society? Delivered at the University of British Columbia in 1983.

These days whenever a discussion of the impact of education on society comes up, a reference to Basil Bernstein’s Education Cannot Compensate for Society (1969) is sure to follow. The problem is that Bernstein was not dealing with the broad question of education’s role in social change but with the the specific one of the claims made for the theory and practice of Compensatory Education. The article was based a more detailed paper: A Critique of the Concept of Compensatory Education. This title better reflects his purpose. It is just a pity that so many references to the shorter article seem to be based on no more than its title.

Brian Simon’s British Columbia speech, on the other hand, did take on the big issue. So it is disappointing that it rarely gets the acknowledgement that it deserves. He brought all of his vast knowledge of the history of education, his involvement with arguments about educational psychology, and his deep understanding of Marxism to bear on the fundamental question ‘can education change society?’.

The speech has two main characteristics: (1) a refusal to reduce education to schooling; (2) a long historical view of the interaction between education and the rest of society.

Joan Simon defined education as “the mode of development of human beings in society” and this is key to the speech in which the idea is spelled out:

… education involves all those formative influences including the family, peer groups, the Church, apprenticeship and the village or civic relations with which all are involved from the earliest times: relationships growing in complexity, of course, as society itself becomes more complex. Within these sets of inter-relations, organised schooling, of course, plays a part, but one which only affected a small, even tiny, proportion of the population until recently.

If we only look at one part of the process, schooling, then we lose site of the broader picture with a consequent loss of meaning of that part.

Brian Simon illustrates the inability of the narrow view to resolve the conflict between extreme judgements (i.e. education is the key to social change vs education passively reflects the nature of the surrounding society). He refers to a widely circulated reader on the sociology of education, Education, Economy and Society, edited by Halsey and others in 1961, and comments: “The many contributors here unanimously expressed the view not only that education could be, but that also that it certainly was, a major factor in bringing about social change”.

Sixteen year later Halsey, with Jerome Karabel, edited another collection, Power and Ideology in Education, in which it is the consensus view “That education can do nothing of any significance; that it must inevitably reflect the society that creates it …”.

After an analysis of the relation of these differing stances, with changes in the political context in which they appear, Brian Simon rejects both views. Education as a key part of the social whole has its own specific characteristics and problems. It is neither some kind of external motor driving society forward by means of its separate source of energy and purpose, nor is it a passive reflection of the social whole. It has relative autonomy and is an important part of overall social change.

This point brings out the importance of Brain Simon’s Marxist understanding. Following Marx he argues that people are not merely products of their environment (a view widely shared by Enlightenment thinkers). Nor can we explain social change as brought about by utopian inspiration. Rejecting both the mechanical materialism of the former and the idealism of the latter he emphases the role of human social activity.

We do not merely react to the world around us we engage with it along with others and in so doing we change not only that world but also ourselves, in the process we become something different to what we were at the beginning. It is this dialectical view that Brian Simon applies to education. Education is not merely a passive reaction to social needs but is a way we act collectively to  satisfy those needs. This means that the role of education must be seen as a dynamic one in which education, in responding to the needs of society, creates a new situation with new needs and new problems to solve.

Can education change society? Brian Simon’s response is that education is and always has been a key component of social change. As part of society’s process of self-movement, its role should neither be exaggerated (it is internal and not external to society as a whole) nor minimised (it is not a mere social epiphenomenon). As a dynamic part of the process of social change it is limited by the tasks set and the means available to solve them. But in solving them, it makes its specific contribution to overall social movement. There is no better way to gain a solid basis for analysing the impact of education on society than by reading this speech.


3 Comments on “Remembering Brian Simon 1915-2002”

  1. David Pavett says:

    A link on the first two words of my piece above has been lost somewhere in the process of publication. They should have appeared as Brian Simon. This link takes readers to an IoT tribute to the work of Brian Simon. I thought this would be useful for those who may not be familiar with his immense contribution.

  2. Yes, he was probably the greatest English educationalist the Communist Party ever produced. Somewhat amused that his loyalty one of Labour’s opponents wasn’t mentioned, given SEA’s affiliation to Labour. Hope to see you profiling Tory and Liberal thinkers next. Or is it only the hard left that gets this sort of honour?

    • David Pavett says:

      Thanks for the comment.

      1. Funnily enough many of us think that the quality of a person’s ideas should be judged by considering those ideas themselves rather than by attaching a political label to the person. Old-fashioned maybe but that is certainly my preference. You managed to say nothing either about Brian Simon’s ideas or my brief presentation of one aspect of them.

      2. If you can name the Conservative and Liberal thinkers you have in mind I would be interested to examine their work. If they, like Brian Simon, spent their life combating pseudo-scientific ways of determining educational destiny at the age of eleven and of working for a system of local schools that would provide the best educational for all children on the assumption that the overwhelming majority are educable to high levels, then I, for one, would certainly be prepared to draw attention to them.