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A transatlantic perspective on theorising education reveals that the academic study of educational phenomena has developed differently within various contexts (Biesta, 2022). In some non-English-speaking countries (such as Germany), Pädagogik is considered an autonomous scientific discipline. Although disciplines such as psychology or philosophy are conceived in this continental construction as adjacent disciplines, education has its distinctive interests, questions and genuine theories (Siegel & Biesta, 2021).

The relative autonomy of education has always been in jeopardy (Siegel & Matthes, 2022; Sæverot, 2021). Particularly today, several developments (for example, the rise of ‘Empirische Bildungsforschung’ [empirical educational research]) threaten the disciplinary ‘heart’ (Sæverot, 2013) of Pädagogik or at least fundamentally transform its appearance or identity in the German-speaking context (Bellmann, 2017).

The data reports of the German Educational Research Association (see, for example, Abs et al., 2020) show that Pädagogik appears to be a ‘very normal’ and even successful discipline – regarding its secondary characteristics (for example, journals, third-party funding). A closer look at the discipline’s primary characteristics reveals the ‘problem of educational theory’ (Siegel & Biesta, 2021): while educationists are neglecting their terms and concepts as well as the development of distinctively educational theories, there is an enormous willingness to import and use uncritically concepts and theories from adjacent fields of research (Prange, 2012; Sæverot, 2021; Vogel, 2016).

We argue that the rediscovery of the principle of relative (not absolute) autonomy of education (see, for example, Weniger, 1990; figure 1) can help to preserve the field as an autonomous, meaning a self-governing, discipline (Dewey, 1929).

Chart showing education's relative autonomy, with four boxes and lines linking each box. Box 1: Relative autonomy: education as a discipline in its own right. Box 2: Interdisciplinarity: education as a discipline open for collaboration. Box 3: Heteronomy: education as an invisible discipline reigned by others. Box 4: Absolute autonomy: education as a discipline in 'splendid isolation'.

Figure 1: Education’s relative autonomy visualised

To maintain and strengthen the relative autonomy of Pädagogik, educationists first need to ask educational questions and dedicate themselves more to understanding and theorising the phenomenon of education (Biesta, 2022; Prange, 2012). Second, educationists need to increasingly (further) develop (already existing) distinctively educational theories (Sæverot, 2021; Siegel & Biesta, 2021). Third, educationists need to engage in better ‘boundary-work’ (Prange, 2012; Siegel & Matthes, 2021).

By addressing these propositions, educationists could tackle the ‘problem of educational theory’. Accordingly, we encourage all those interested in education as a relatively autonomous discipline to stand up and speak up for education: a ‘structural interest in and activism for education’s autonomy’ (Yosef-Hassidim & Baldacchino, 2021, p. 51) of a strong academic community of educationists is needed to work persistently on this crucial cause.


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