Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Social Imaginaries and Schooling

  • F. Tony Carusi
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_524



This entry considers the status of schooling through the notion of the modern social imaginary. The relationship between schooling and the modern social imaginary is first introduced generally and then explored in more detail through the two primary concepts that define the modern social imaginary, specifically secular time and bifocal consciousness. The role of achievement is taken as emblematic of schooling as a modern social imaginary institution. This entry concludes with some brief critical considerations of schooling as a modern social imaginary.

Charles Taylor brings together the three domains of economics, the public sphere, and a self-governing (sovereign) people to mark what he terms a modern social imaginary. Each of these domains, alone and collectively, represent what Taylor identifies as a significant shift in the assumptions that people, specifically Western people, make in their everyday, ordinary lives. These assumptions are the baseline from which the activities of modern individuals proceed. When one thinks about going to school, attending classes, raising their hand to speak, expecting a teacher present, etc., they are actively (but likely not reflectively) participating in the modern social imaginary. In other words, the modern social imaginary is the way one’s ordinary life makes sense and is made sense of. Being able to imagine the scenario described above, to picture the arrangement of desks, the interactions between the students and teachers in the classroom, and the kinds of work being done, is a part of the modern social imaginary to the degree that one is able to fill in the details for this sparsely described scenario in a way that makes sense not only to the one doing the imagining, but makes sense of that person as well. When a person can put themselves in this scenario, they are participating in the ordinary life of schooling – not because they necessarily do this in their ordinary life at present but because they can imagine what this scenario involves and most likely have had experiences in schools that inform their imagining of school. Many of the details that accompany these activities can be imagined as though they were a part of their everyday activities, which is precisely what indicates one’s engagement with Taylor’s notion of modern social imaginaries.

In his defining work for modern social imaginaries, Taylor (2004) posits two interrelated notions that make the Western social imaginary particularly modern. The first notion is secular time. Taylor offers a broad definition of secularity by emphasizing that secular time rules out an external guarantor standing outside of time and acting as a reference point for a society’s normative order. While secularity for Taylor captures the sense of “without religion” that more colloquial uses of secularity connote, he emphasizes a notion of secularity that deals more generally with the distinction between immanence and transcendence. At this more general level, society within secular time is not based on a model whereby some higher authority like God has preordained social categories and processes that hierarchically sort genus and species according to some transcendent ordering principle such as the Great Chain of Being. Instead, society is entirely immanent to time: the actions and objects in and of time operate in a horizontal world wherein the legitimating authority is found in and as a part of society rather than being transcendent to it. Recalling Habermas’ work on the structural shift from religious to rational authority in Enlightenment Europe (1989), Taylor highlights the uptake of reason and rational discourse as a significant consequence of society’s transition to secular time. For this theory, authority is a matter of debate that reason legitimates the actions in and order of society. Accordingly, actors can change society via rational debate, and reason is the grounds from which actors act. Through secular time, then, individuals in the modern social imaginary assume a new type of rational and immanent order wherein society is a sphere upon which action is based, and actors are capable of changing society.

This split between actors (or agents) and the society in which one acts offers the second fundamental notion for modern social imaginaries – the bifocal consciousness of society. Taylor reasons that in order for secular time to be immanent, individuals’ consciousness of society must maintain two foci, agency and objectification. Agency can be understood here as the limitations and affordances one has to act in society, particularly as those actions can direct social change. Objectification is the process by which something is made into an object (objectified) to be acted upon. At the most general level, objectification turns society into an object. In order for the modern social imaginary to operate, individuals must be able to instigate change in society without appeal to a transcendent authority; they must be able to imagine society as an object to be acted within, i.e., to objectify society, and to imagine that their actions can cause change. Conversely, in a transcendent model, actors are limited in what they can change by the plan of a higher authority. This transcendent position supports ideas like the great Chain of Being where anything outside of this chain is apart from God’s domain. Thus, if one were to act outside of this transcendent normative order, they would not be changing society but likely damning themselves or in need of salvation through some intermediary. However, with the immanence of secular time, agents are sovereign actors among equally sovereign actors who act through social institutions and agencies. While these social institutions are objectified as operating independently of particular agents, and regularly do so, they are also open to being challenged and changed by agents and regularly are. Thus, the modern social imaginary maps the terrain in which agents act, i.e., objectify society, as well as flattens that society so agents are able to change it through their actions without the need for intermediaries like kings or priests. Taylor offers the economy as a prime example of this bifocal consciousness. The economy, on Taylor’s view, is objectified as a system of transactions between agents that economic agents assume to exist (objectify) as a precondition of the actions for which they are the agents. Economic transactions take place independently of individual agents and agencies, yet they are also the mode of action for economic agents. An individual can buy, sell, and produce an array of products, but these acts operate within a system of supply and demand that does not rely on any specific individual performing them. Yet, in order for an individual to enter into economic transactions, they objectify the economy as a system in which these transactions both make sense to the individual and make sense of the individual (as an economic agent).

With the fundamental roles of secular time and a bifocal consciousness of society outlined, the implications of the modern social imaginary for schooling begin to take shape. To understand the role of schooling in the modern social imaginary, it will be helpful to take a brief detour into the transformation of schooling projected by the Enlightenment. Schooling is one of the primary social institutions that has come to define and be defined by Western modernity and Enlightenment thinking. While it would be a mistake to think of schooling as a uniform, monolithic construct across the space-time of Western society, Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” (1784/1996) offers a general starting point to distinguish modern schooling within the context of the modern social imaginary from previous varieties of schooling. For Kant, Enlightenment represents individuals’ freedom to make public use of their reason. This culminates in his demand that followers of the Enlightenment “Dare to know!” by which he urges individuals to throw off dogmatism of all sorts and to reason for themselves about any and all public matters. Kant offers examples of officers, tax collectors, and clergy as those potential dogmatists (what Taylor would consider intermediaries) who can curtail the freedom required for the public use of one’s reason through their obedience to a higher order, be it the State or Church. Kant’s move away from dogmatism and toward the public use of one’s reason, including the freedom such use requires, offers the mark of distinction for modern schooling whereby schools can be viewed as social institutions dedicated to the maturation of children being spoken for into adults who speak for themselves rather than speaking for some higher authority.

When schooling is viewed through the Kantian approach to Enlightenment, Taylor’s modern social imaginary merges ordinary life with philosophical justification. The reason for modern schooling in its Western iterations is premised on the development of sovereign individuals capable of acting in the public sphere as rational agents. Philosophically one might say the shift for schooling from Medieval to Modern is a shift from final to efficient cause, or from schooling toward an end like salvation to schooling toward developing one’s ability to reason, what Kant describes as speaking for one’s self. Taylor’s work on the modern social imaginary lays a foundation for schooling as an institutional practice through which children continually encounter society in secular time and through a bifocal consciousness in which students learn through their own actions as well as through being acted upon.

Following Taylor’s argument, one should expect to find Western schooling in its modern iteration to operate in accordance with the premises of the modern social imaginary, namely, secular time and bifocal consciousness. To understand schooling as a process and set of institutions embedded in the modern social imaginary, schooling should largely promote reason as the primary legitimating authority in the development of children into rational actors able to direct social change while objectifying the society in which they act. Due to the diverse approaches contained within Western schooling, exceptions will be present (religious schooling for example), but the important question for modern social imaginaries is whether schooling promotes these premises in the main. Thus, what is needed is a common reference point that describes Western schooling in relatively established yet current ways. One such reference point can be found in the notion of achievement.

A feature of Western schooling that bears out Taylor’s modern social imaginary is what Parsons (1959) refers to as the single axis of achievement found in schools. This axis can take any number of forms; though in contemporary Western schooling, it has been drawn largely in terms of standards for literacy and numeracy and evaluated through student performance on standards-based tests. Parsons highlights the importance of the axis of achievement in legitimating the kinds of differentiation that schools enable and enact. Through national standards-based testing and international comparative testing, rankings, and league tables between schools, regions, and nations are produced and used as reasons for reforming education policy and practice at macro (international and national), meso (regional and district), and micro (school and classroom) levels. Because different levels of achievement manifest a range of consequences specifically in terms of failure and success, the formation of the axis of achievement must be seen as fair in its processes and outcomes. The differentiation between student performance along the axis of achievement requires the assurances of objective measurement as well as equality of opportunity. The measures must differentiate based on work and ability and not on factors beyond a student’s control. Moreover, evaluation must be controlled so students who are being tested in common have been taught in a common curriculum. These two features of the axis of achievement mirror Taylor’s notions of secular time and bifocal consciousness.

Parsons’ single axis of achievement is a notional construct located in secular time as it is shared among the various publics and stakeholders involved in schooling. It offers a systematic way to evaluate student performance and differentiate between student ability in an agreed upon manner. Yet, this agreement does not look beyond society for its reasoning. With contemporary Western schooling in view, the single axis of achievement is entirely immanent to society, i.e., within secular time, whereby schooling is a social institution orientated toward developing students’ abilities in literacy and numeracy. Rather than appealing to a transcendent notion of salvation, for example, the rationality of the subject matter, e.g., the logics of literacy and numeracy, provides the legitimating authority for achievement. An answer is correct or incorrect based on reasons immanent to the subject matter, and achievement differentiates students based on reasoning they are generally capable of performing. While exceptions can be identified to rational authority whenever a student is told they need to learn a subject because it will be on the test or because the teacher or State said so, at a general level schooling establishes the axis of achievement within secular time and in this aspect represents an institution within the modern social imaginary as Taylor defines it. What remains is a consideration of whether and how schooling in the modern social imaginary operates according to a bifocal consciousness of objectification and agency.

Accepting achievement as a common feature of Western schooling in general and an important process for schooling as part of the modern social imaginary requires, in addition to secular time, that one locates the features of bifocal consciousness, namely, the mutual relation of objectification and agency, as a precondition of action that operates independently of agents while also maintaining the freedom for agents to act. The axis of achievement identified by Taylor relies upon the families and staffs of schools sharing the value of achievement as an objective means of differentiation. This shared value entails objectifying assumptions about teaching, learning, knowledge, and ignorance, in the sense that achievement is able to point to these dimensions of schooling as existing independently of individuals. The independent existence of achievement is especially acute in its ability to be quantified in ways that indicate whether a learner is performing their role successfully. Receiving a low score on an achievement test shows that a student did not learn something, did not pass from ignorance to knowledge in an acceptable way. While any number of mitigating factors can be used to direct and redirect arguments of why a learner did not achieve an appropriate score, the objectification of achievement stands as the ground from which such arguments issue. Yet, achievement also guarantees the freedom of agents in schooling due to the agents’ ability to improve their scores over time through learning and gaining knowledge. As such, achievement is a form of objectification embodied by schooling that provides an environment in which agents of schooling (teachers, students, policy makers, parents, etc.) can act to change achievement. This achievement objectification mirrors Taylor’s consideration of the economy as a field that must be objectified in order for one to act within it: in fact, agents have no environment in which they can act without such objectification. Western schooling based on achievement is a paragon of the modern social imaginary to the extent that it is located within secular time and premised upon the ability of its agents to improve not only the achievement of individuals but also achievement itself.

Understanding schooling as emblematic of Taylor’s modern social imaginary offers a set of regulatory criteria. For instance, a proponent of schooling in this model may approach school reform based on the support of programs and practices that reinforce achievement understood through secular time and bifocal consciousness. However, there are also limitations to this way of conceiving schooling, one of which Taylor acknowledges. Given his reliance on the historical events of the French and American revolutions as definitively breaking from previous social imaginaries, his concept of the modern social imaginary is exclusively Western in its development and focus. This commits the modern social imaginary to a narrow geography and history that schooling as a social institution far exceeds. While elements of the modern social imaginary may be located in non-Western paradigms of schooling, the geographical and historical development of schooling in non-Western areas do not have constitutive ties to the French and American revolutions and Enlightenment thinking that are fundamental to Taylor’s notion of modernity. As such, the status of schooling as a part of the modern social imaginary excludes a significant portion of the world from what Taylor defines as modern.

Taylor points out that the modern marks a new normative order, but the normative status of modernity does not make up part of his consideration on modern social imaginaries. That is to say, modernity as Taylor uses the term comprises historically situated forms of reasoning, secularity, objectification, and activity to the exclusion of non-Western contexts. Taylor acknowledges that his work does not extricate modernity from Western history and philosophy and suggests widening the notion of modernity to include non-Western contexts. This approach views modernity as capable of being disentangled from Western philosophy and history and generalized to non-Western contexts while maintaining modernity’s defining features of secular time and bifocal consciousness. Modernity acts as a normative category into which Western and non-Western alike can fit.


Critiques of modernity as a normative category have focused on the problems of assuming continuity within what is labeled as modern (Foucault 1984), as well as problems with the denigration of what (and who) falls outside of modernity (Bhabha 1994) and the processes by which the non-modern are made to be modern (Said 1994). Tellingly, these critiques issue from what can be called a postmodern concern with grand narratives (Lyotard 1984), and they offer an important set of questions when considering schooling as a part of the modern social imaginary. When focusing on modernity as a normative category rather than as a concept that nonnormatively marks the arrival of a new normative order as Taylor does, the criticisms of the normative status of modernity can be addressed to schooling and achievement. For instance, when achievement is used as a device to identify students as at risk, priority learners, failing, exceptional, below standard, etc. and those students who are disproportionately identified as minority and non-White, questions arise concerning what is being valued as achievement and how normative assumptions of identity underpin otherwise objectified and agentic achievement in the secular time of schooling. Schooling may provide a powerful example of the modern social imaginary at work; however, questions remain around the normative status of modernity and its implications for schooling.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of EducationMassey UniversityPalmerston NorthNew Zealand