A Hippocratic Oath for education: First do no harm

Modernity’s illusion is that, for any understanding (traditional or progressive) to matter, it must be reconfigured into an actionable research product guaranteed to practically manage away difficulty, one challenge at a time. Yet such products have had a notorious history of failing to deliver on promised outcomes and/or, in fixing something in the immediacy, leaving long-term underlying issues to fester (Coburn, 2004; Kennedy, 2005; Opfer & Pedder, 2011). In short, despite paradigm shifts of understanding, our practices remain caught in an unabating twentieth-century quarrel over what schools and school people ought to accomplish and what interventions should be done to whom in order to make that happen. These are impasses of an “extant order” that, itself, wants for rupture and repair in ways to prompt a “fundamental structural change in the culture” (Pinar, 1978, p. 210). Meanwhile, on the other side of modernity, postmodernity seems to afford no solution at all, only the questioning of foundational truths. In a world where alternative facts have entered the public lexicon, the critical disillusioning function of the postmodern position leaves a sense of nowhere to go. 

There are no infinitely right answers. Yet we need the conviction of our current premises, for their traction and their orienting capacity, as we push away from and press into new ways of thinking and being.

The missed point of both modernity and postmodernity has been that life systems, whether individual or collective, must undergo the movement of self-change in order to remain viable. To idle in our favourite illusions or dwell in disillusionment is to fail to learn. Learning calls for movement from the experience of having foundational truths, to the disillusionment of those truths, to the forging of foundations more fitted to a changing world. Learning – as the enfolding of, adapting to, and co-evolving with difference – is about dialectic movement. There are no infinitely right answers. Yet we need the conviction of our current premises, for their traction and their orienting capacity, as we push away from and press into new ways of thinking and being. 

The trick to learning, if there be a trick, is to effectuate the movement of self-change all the while sustaining continuity, agency, and coherence sufficient to viability as a life form – else the learning entity fractures. Individuals and collectives change in response to shifting worlds of experience – worlds governed neither by any particular self, nor by any particular other, but according to a field of interacting relational parts, including their subtended and subtending wholes. The gravitational field of relations and their histories give any system its constitutional character, bracing it in dynamic tension as parts pull and tug for change. When the pace of life, as in today’s world, compromises the capacity for systems to maintain viability across self-revisions, then certain forms of violence will be imposed upon the system, as if to force the centre to hold (see Adorno in Butler, 2005). To forestall the fracturing of the field, have we taken to generating contemporary Frankenstein’s monsters (as in the example of compendial collections of theories for teachers), where teachers are given incommensurable parts, forcibly stitched together, and then charged with jolting the assemblage into life with the electricity of hype? 

In the throes of radical planetary upheavals that call for paradigmatic changes in our very ways of being together with the planet, to what degree does our clinging to modernity’s illusions of control over the planet endanger all life as we know it? Have normative beliefs about the practical management of living systems, including ecological ones, grown anachronistic? And does their insistence upon the present perform a kind of violence there? A great deal of harm seems to be performed in the name of forcing a centre to hold. Perhaps in education, we might adopt our own version of the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm. 

And still, resources and support are hardly forthcoming for veering differently. In the public sphere, appetites for practical certainty invariably reinforce and drive a swift distillation from useful insights to prescribed techniques, typically for getting the next generation to know content deemed most important from the viewpoint of stakeholders with their one foot in the past and the other in their present. As long as placebo effects run rampant in education, and as long as teacher preparation and practice is dictated to by such stakeholders, then any revolution of a Kuhnian sort will be a long time coming. Yet riding on desire, hope, and belief, I dare to forward an ambitious project where capacity, trust, and meaning in learning might come to characterise what we are about in schooling.


Butler, J. (2005). Giving an account of oneself. New York, NY: Fordham University Press. 

Coburn, C. E. (2004). Beyond decoupling: Rethinking the relationship between the institutional environment and the classroom. Sociology of Education, 77(3), 211–244. 

Kennedy, M. M. (2005). Inside teaching: How classroom life undermines reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Opfer, V. D., & Pedder, D. (2011). Conceptualizing teacher professional learning. Review of Educational Research, 81(3), 376–407. doi:10.3102/0034654311413609 

Pinar, W. F. (1978). The reconceptualisation of curriculum studies. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 10(3), 205–214. 

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