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The Logic of Deferral: Educational Aims and Intellectual Disability


The educational aims described by educational philosophers rarely embrace the full range of differences in intellectual ability, adaptive behavior, or communication that children exhibit. Because envisioned educational aims have significant consequences for how educational practices, pedagogy, and curricula are conceptualized, the failure to acknowledge and embrace differences in ability leaves open the question of the extent to which students with intellectual disabilities are subject to the same aims as their “typically-developing” peers. In articulating and defending valued aims of education, educational philosophers tacitly or expressly concede that particular aims will be ill suited to many children with intellectual disabilities, and that separate aims will therefore apply to them. This paper evaluates the philosophical reasoning behind this conclusion that some people, by necessity, must be governed by separate educational aims, to be decided separately and secondarily. The author calls this the “deferral stance.” First, the paper outlines concerns about a particular ability-biased social and epistemic context in which theorizing about educational aims takes place. The author then examines assumptions that underpin the logic of deferral, arguing that the logic proves flawed when subjected to conceptual and empirical scrutiny. The paper concludes by outlining an inclusive approach—the affirmative stance—to theorizing about educational aims that resists the logic of exclusion and deferral.

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  1. 1.

    Within this range, there is flexibility, but it is clear that a demarcated line exists between those who are included as decision-makers and those who are excluded as such.

  2. 2.

    Those familiar with flourishing as an aim of education may be wondering if these are the only two options: would not flourishing aims allow for individuality of aims such that no group is excluded or centralized? My response is that a flourishing conception simply moves the question of aims further down the line. This is because questions of the suitability of particular aims for children’s flourishing will still arise in relation to children’s perceived or assessed abilities. Indeed, what constitutes flourishing may come to be constrained by judgments about capacity that follow from disability labels and diagnoses, a practice I evaluate and critique in this paper.

  3. 3.

    Many philosophers use the term “cognitive disability” rather than (and often interchangeably with) “intellectual disability” (e.g. US/Canada) or “learning difficulties” (e.g. UK) in describing individuals who experience (or are assessed as experiencing) cognitive limitations. Cognitive disability is a more capacious term, however, that includes some learning disabilities, brain injuries, and brain conditions of aging. I will, for the most part, limit my discussion to “intellectual disability” in order to maintain the empirical specificity that I am advocating for in philosophical theorizing.

  4. 4.

    Of course, schooling resources are not typically distributed according to a single aim of education and educational systems follow a plurality of economic, civic, and cultural aims. Yet sometimes aims conflict. For example, economic aims may require the educational pursuit of capabilities consistent with labor market advantage, even while these impede the development of autonomy, critical thinking skills, community engagement, or cultural connectedness (see Morton 2011; Lipman 2011). When aims conflict, we are left to consider how we ought to value these aims relative to one another, or, especially when faced with economic or cultural constraints, how we practically distribute conflicting but valued aims.

  5. 5.

    Here I have used the term persons labeled with intellectual and developmental disabilities rather than persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The purpose of doing so is to call attention to the sense in which the category of “intellectual disability” is a disputed construction and classification (Carlson 2010) and to the role that (educational) labeling practices play in this classification and construction. Although I use the term “person with an intellectual disability” in the paper, I intend this qualification to apply throughout.

  6. 6.

    Some educational philosophers (e.g. Levinson 2003, 2012; Morton 2011) have joined critical educational theorists of race/ethnicity (e.g. Lindkvist 2008), class (e.g. Oakes 2005), and gender/sexuality (e.g. Payne and Smith 2012) in arguing that educational goals, including those expressed within educational policy and theory, can privilege dominant racial, class, gender, sexual, cultural, and religious groups. This work suggests that embracing differences in our educational theorizing can strengthen our educational policy and practice.

  7. 7.

    Of course, theoretical frameworks and policies of educational separation are not unique to the schooling histories of students with disabilities, nor is advocating for separate aims exclusive to educational philosophers, as I discuss below. Further, the rationale, implementation, and consequences of separate learning aims or educational tracks are evident in the racialized and classed practices of ability tracking that persist in the United States and elsewhere today. Ability tracking has been justified historically by the belief that economic and civic well-being depends on the differentiation of education according to students’ assumed inherent intellectual (and in some cases physical) abilities (see Danforth et al. 2006; Lynch and Baker 2005; Oakes 2005).

  8. 8.

    Separate aims are not the same as nor do they entail separate learning environments. However, as I will show, judgments about the potential inclusivity of specific educational aims, like democratic citizenship, are likewise shaped by distributive concerns.

  9. 9.

    While some educational theorists suggest that this threat of stigma warrants separate schooling, others have argued that such stigma is far from inevitable and the placement of stigmatized or bullied children in separate schools impedes their right to fair and equitable education (e.g. Norwich 2010). Further, critics argue that separate schooling enhances labeled children’s social stigmatization and marginalization by excusing school authorities, teachers, and peers from examining their beliefs about disability (e.g. Brantlinger 2004; Hehir 2002).

  10. 10.

    The question of the just distribution of resources to children with disabilities—especially those regarded as having learning, developmental, and intellectual disabilities—has been a significant area of focus within educational philosophy that addresses disability. See Terzi (2008) for a comprehensive discussion. See also Merry (2008), Norwich (2010).

  11. 11.

    Philosophers’ opinions on the justifiability of levelling down education are mixed and vary depending on their view of equality and in virtue of what students are considered equal.

  12. 12.

    Although Anderson’s discussion concerns the economically and racially privileged, I find it relevant here to the ability privileged.

  13. 13.

    Obviously this term creates confusions in the context of my discussion. Perhaps “epistemic gaps” would be preferable.

  14. 14.

    I do not intend this to be an endorsement of high-stakes testing, but rather to demonstrate a (albeit paradoxical) relationship between high expectations and educational achievement.


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Taylor, A. The Logic of Deferral: Educational Aims and Intellectual Disability. Stud Philos Educ 37, 265–285 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11217-017-9595-y

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  • Educational aims
  • Intellectual disability
  • Educational equality
  • Epistemic justice
  • Inclusive education