Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Social Imaginaries: An Overview

  • John O’Neill
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_379



Historical analysis of the life cycle of educational ideas and ideals is integral to an understanding of educational policy and practice in a particular society at any given time. How do ideas and ideals about the nature, aims, and effective organization of formal educational activities come into being, flourish, and wither? To what extent do they become embodied in the everyday language, practices, and relations of education policy discourse in various parts of an “education system”? Why do some appear to gain widespread popular support and acceptance within a society and others do not?

The term “modern social imaginary” was coined by the Canadian hermeneutic philosopher Charles Taylor (2004). Taylor analyzes the way in which western societies have both imagined and attempted to realize themselves according to popular conceptions of their moral purpose and moral order. He does this according to three modes of imagination and realization: the economy, the public sphere, and self-governance. His philosophical interest concerns the continuities and discontinuities in the ordinary social processes through which ideas and ideals transform and renormalize the everyday practices of societies over centuries. In this respect, his analysis has far more in common with, say, Foucault’s (2002) archeology of discursive knowledge-power formations and their embodiment in disciplinary practices and individual subjectivities than it does with, say, Lacan’s psychoanalytic study of the imaginary self. The social imaginary serves as a heuristic to examine the material relationships between educational ideas or ideals and educational policies and practices as they operate within an educational system and its host culture. Using this heuristic, we may also raise useful questions about the reasons why public education is so contested, why some educational ideas appear to enjoy universal appeal and similar effects irrespective of local context, while others are seemingly realized in quite different and even contradictory ways across diverse cultural settings.

This entry begins by briefly elaborating Taylor’s philosophical concept of the modern social imaginary. It then presents a selection of analyses of the ascendancy of major educational ideas and ideals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It concludes with an assessment of the insights on educational ideas, policy, and practice that are afforded by adopting a philosophical orientation of education as social imaginary.

Modern Social Imaginaries

Taylor uses the term “modern social imaginary” (Taylor 2004) to describe the way in which people imagine and work to maintain the society in which they live. The imaginary is essentially a commonly shared moral conception of the ideal society. Taylor’s social imaginary has elements of both moral structure (what is right) and moral agency (what is worth striving for). A social imaginary, for Taylor, is about how people “imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie all these expectations” (p. 23). Taylor uses the term imaginary in preference to theory because he is concerned with how “ordinary people” imagine the social “and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms, but is carried in images, stories and legends” (p. 23). Imaginaries are shared by large fractions of society, whereas theory may remain the preserve of minorities or elites. Additionally, “the social imaginary is that common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy” (p. 23). Public education, particularly schooling, is not based on a single canonical body of objective knowledge. Instead it is a culturally based selection of ideas and ideals that have to become accepted as meaningful and right for families, communities, and a society as a whole. These features of social imaginaries are highly relevant to an appreciation of how common understandings of education shape the genesis, enactment, and continual contestation of specific educational policies and practices within a system.

For Taylor, modern social imaginaries manifest three distinct forms of “social self-understanding” (p. 69). These are the economy, the public sphere, and democratic self-governance. In the transition from classical to modern social imaginaries, Taylor identifies a shift in conception of the moral order from one in which society was divinely prescribed and hierarchically organized, and where one’s duty was to one’s designated place in that moral order, to one in which humans exchange goods and services within what we conceive of as an economy. Consequently, what is right and what is worth striving for is increasingly an economic order, with all that entails about normative valuing of behavior, relations, and achievements in social institutions such as education. Within an economically framed moral order, the ability of individuals to engage in productive work and to create and maintain a private space for their family unit, together with the personal autonomy these require, is of primary importance. Taylor’s notion of the primacy of economic self-understanding helps to explain how education policies that are premised on personal responsibility, family advancement, and freedom of choice and association may acquire significant appeal within contemporary society because they are essentially seen as morally good and worth striving for.

For Taylor, the public sphere is a fluid and mobile social commons where people meet (physical and virtually) “to discuss matters of common interest; and thus to be able to form a common mind about these” (p. 83). The public sphere is part of and essential to an appreciation of the importance of civil society. In the public sphere, individuals choose to associate in order to pursue their mutual interests. The public sphere is “extrapolitical” and “metatopical” (pp. 92–93). The public sphere actively mediates the political and polity spheres. Accordingly, in terms of public education, it may be seen to be vital for education ideals, ideas, and the resultant policies to speak to and be responsive to concerns articulated through the public sphere if they are to gain enduring popular consent and support.

Taylor’s third form of self-understanding concerns the transition from the undivided monarchical rule of the classical age to the constitutional political State of the modern age. The transition has been characterized by struggles, often revolutionary, as peoples become dissatisfied with what they perceive as the unjust exercise of power over their lives and seek to have this replaced by a more acceptable balance between executive power, collective obligations, and individual freedoms. A simple summary of the process during such periods would be that elite theoretical attempts to identify moral and practical problems grow to become a mass popular resentment at the perceived injustice of the current settlement. This precipitates attempts to initiate practical governance change. At first, such attempts may continue to draw on social imaginaries that successfully made sense of the past. That they cannot explain new and changed practices leads eventually to the emergence of new theories and conceptions of the ideal moral order. These permit a more radical departure from old assumptions and a move towards new governance settlements.

Public education represents a microcosm of these societal transitions in the form of efforts to achieve lasting education settlements that meet the needs and aspirations of greater and greater fractions of a society. However, the ideologies and ideas that underpin these have carried quite diverse understandings of the economy and the public sphere and how these should inform system level education funding and provision. Thus, at the time of writing, education policies in many Western and non-Western societies still exhibit ongoing unresolved struggles for ascendancy between, for example, neoliberal, social-democratic, and authoritarian conceptions of the purposes and necessary forms of organization and administration of education (early childhood, school, tertiary, and community).

Overall then, the social imaginary is focused on common or popular understandings of what is right and worth striving for in society rather than on the abstract theories of academic, political, or bureaucratic elites. Taylor’s three forms of self-understanding enable us to examine the complex and contested ways in which educational ideas and ideals are positioned with regard to: (i) both the macroeconomic (re)distribution of public educational resources at national level and the microeconomic strategies families follow to improve their personal circumstances, (ii) the positioning and choices of groups within society to associate and communicate around particular educational policies in the public sphere (physical and virtual), and (iii) the extent to which educational policies and practices are perceived to advance a society’s moral ideals and norms in respect of acceptable social and economic settlements.

Educational Imaginaries

Until the second half of the eighteenth century, education in England was largely the church’s educational enterprise based on “the idea that education is a unity, the key to which lies in religion” (Burgess 1958, p. 4). Universities and grammar schools were the preserve of social elites, while basic charity schools were established for the deserving poor. During the eighteenth century, the church’s corporate monopoly on schooling and a classical curriculum was gradually fragmented by the emergence of what Burgess calls the private classical school, established by individuals to provide a liberal education (p. 7). As grammar schools became more exclusive, charitable founders and private benefactors greatly increased the number of “non-classical charity schools” (p. 8) to provide moral education though religious instruction and the teaching of literacy and numeracy: “these were to be the answer to both pauperism and irreligion” (p. 9). The number of day charity schools grew, through donations and subscriptions, and their administration became incorporated in the form of local and, later, national societies, many of which exhibited active cooperation between church, dissenters, and secular groups. The second half of the eighteenth century saw the introduction of State maintenance grants and a short-lived system of payment by results. The 1870 Education Act created school boards to advance the ideal of universal entitlement to elementary education and, subsequently, the establishment of a unified national system of local education authorities to provide greater assurance to central government that this was actually occurring. While this example is peculiar to England and Wales, it has broad historic parallels with education systems elsewhere. Together they illustrate the emergence over several hundred years of what is arguably the first systemic educational imaginary, mass compulsory schooling.

Similar discursive trajectories may be seen in the emergence, proliferation, and decline of educational ideas and their contiguous policies and practices in all western countries, together with many examples of contestation or rejection of dominant schooling forms through “alternative” education. Cremin’s (1961) classic study of the ordinary school, for example, shows how the American progressive education movement emerged after the Civil War and was “part of a vast humanitarian effort to apply the promise of American life–the ideal of government by, of, and for the people–to the puzzling new urban-industrial civilization” (p. viii). While it declined and disappeared in the decades after the Second World War, Cremin argues that its success as an idea lay in broadening the scope of schooling beyond basic skills to include issues of health, work, and the quality of life; introducing pedagogies that were based on the new psychological and social science research; a recognition that the education offered must meet the needs of a diverse child population; and the democratization of cultural values (pp. viii–ix). While progressive education attracted a significant following across political, polity, and civil society groups, including teachers, its dominance was by no means uncontested. Kliebard (2004) thus documents, across much the same historical period as Cremin, the constant struggle for ascendancy and popular support among four curriculum ideologies, each of which held relatively greater sway at particular times across the different interest groups that make up the schooling discourse community. Herbert’s four ideologies were: humanist, progressive, traditionalist, and social reconstructionist. Each may be said to reflect diverse understandings of how society and the economy interact and, consequently, therefore, what the school curriculum should comprise in order to best prepare young people for meaningful social and economic participation.

That curricula and attendant schooling forms in a given period reflect the ideas and ideals of dominant groups in society aptly demonstrates that “how one conceives of education … is a function of how one conceives of the culture and its aims, professed or otherwise” (Bruner 1996, p. x). Moreover, notes Bruner, “learning and thinking are always situated in a cultural setting and always dependent on the utilization of cultural resources” (p. 4). In this sense, the educational imaginary materially shapes and is shaped by topical economic, social, and cultural discourses. Thus Callahan (1962), for example, is able to show how at the beginning of the twentieth century in America, the administration of public schools came to be dominated by what he called the “cult of efficiency” expressed in the form of business ideas, assumptions, processes, and practices applied to educational activities. In seeking to explain the dominance of industrial or commercial over educational ideas, he observed that educators enjoyed relatively low status in American society at the time, compared with business which was regarded as a defining cultural, social, and economic ideal. Furthermore, “what was unexpected was the extent, not only of the power of the business-industrial groups, but of the strength of the business ideology in the American culture … I had expected more professional autonomy and I was completely unprepared for the extent and degree of capitulation by administrators to whatever demands were made upon them” (pp. vii–viii).

Formal education may therefore be seen in some ways as an idiosyncratic modern social imaginary in terms of how Taylor’s three forms of self-awareness play out. While mass compulsory schooling has consistently lain at the heart of system level official education policy because of its facility to sort entire student cohorts for diverse employment and higher education outcomes, discourses around the value of adult and community education (and, for that matter, early childhood education) have proven more ephemeral. This is so despite periodic recognition that adult and community education (e.g., Blyth 1983) has an important role to play in enabling those who may not have succeeded in formal education to acquire the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to engage more confidently and autonomously in the economy and the public sphere.

For many students, there may also be a significant difference between the official curriculum and how it is experienced. In this regard, for example, Branson (1991) analyzes the relationships between gender, education, and work and argues that “we are all born into an economically and culturally biased environment, biased in class, gender and ethnic terms” (p. 95). Education both produces and reproduces existing power structures within a society and therefore needs to be seen as potentially regressive, not progressive. According to Taylor’s conception of the imaginary, gradual realization of the regressive elements of an education system will create the conditions in which elites, alliances of interest groups, and then society as a whole seek to change what becomes perceived as an unjust educational settlement.

Relatedly, Ball (2012) uses the term “neoliberal imaginary” to describe how, today, influential individuals, non-governmental organizations, venture philanthropists, and business interests develop largely private, virtual networks of interest outside the public sphere to promote the adoption of privatization and commercialization ideologies in the policies and practices of public education provision. Finally, returning to Taylor’s notion of the imaginary as “images, stories and legends” (2004, p. 23), an iconic former Director of Education in New Zealand, C E Beeby (1986) articulated the notion of an “educational myth” which is required to sustain any successful educational settlement. In Beeby’s case, the defining myth of the decades following the Great Depression in 1930s New Zealand was the State’s commitment to provide free, universal access to education according to need and merit and thereby to create equality of opportunity. Looking back a quarter of a century after his retirement, Beeby argued that a successful myth needs to be in accord with a strong public aspiration, expressed in language flexible enough to accommodate different interpretations of it, and unattainable for at least a generation. In time, as the weaknesses of the old myth become clear, the old myth is absorbed into a new educational myth of the next generation (pp. xv–xvi). This description is consistent with Taylor’s account of how accepted norms of self-governance change through growing public awareness of the injustices of the current social and economic settlements.


The conception of the social imaginary enables analysis of the dominant moral purpose and moral order of a society in terms of private (or familial) and public (or systemic) economic agency. It also encourages a focus on the strategies of association and communication that are employed by interest groups within the public sphere and between the public, political, and polity spheres. Finally, it requires an analysis of the ways in which societies over time change their shared understandings of socially just economic and social settlements and the events through which old settlements are abandoned in favor of others that appear to have greater moral purpose and utility.

The introduction of modern mass compulsory education has typically been advocated on the basis that it provides significant economic, social, and community benefits, both public and private. The concept of the social imaginary permits contiguous analysis of each of these, and of their complex interactions in the context of general and particular educational ideas and ideas, in and between societies, at particular historical junctures and over much longer periods of time. In this sense, it makes sense to talk of modern educational imaginaries. A hermeneutic philosophical orientation such as Taylor’s encourages a focus on the meanings, values, and moral worth that ordinary people in society attach to educational ideals and ideals, how political and polity groups both shape and are shaped by these, how lasting educational settlements are achieved, and why they fail.


  1. Ball, S. (2012). Global education inc.: New policy networks and the neo-liberal imaginary. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  2. Beeby, C. (1986). Introduction. In W. Renwick (Ed.), Moving targets: Six essays on educational policy (pp. 1–22). Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.Google Scholar
  3. Blyth, J. (1983). English university adult education 1908–1958: The unique tradition. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Branson, J. (1991). Education, gender and work. In D. Corson (Ed.), Education for work: Background to policy and curriculum (pp. 92–110). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.Google Scholar
  5. Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Burgess, H. (1958). Enterprise in education: The story of the work of the established church in the education of the people prior to 1870. London: National Society.Google Scholar
  7. Callahan, R. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  8. Cremin, L. (1961). The transformation of the school: Progressivism in American education 1876–1957. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.Google Scholar
  9. Foucault, M. (2002). The archaeology of knowledge. London: Routledge Classics.Google Scholar
  10. Kliebard, H. (2004). The struggle for the American curriculum 1893–1958 (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge Falmer.Google Scholar
  11. Taylor, C. (2004). Modern social imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of EducationMassey UniversityPalmerston NorthNew Zealand