Philosophy, Death and Education

by Peter Roberts (Author) R. Scott Webster (Author) John Quay (Author)
©2023 Textbook XIV, 128 Pages
Series: Complicated Conversation, Volume 58


Often regarded as one of life’s few certainties, death is both instantly familiar to us and deeply mysterious. Death is everywhere, yet few of us take the time to consider its significance in shaping human lives. This book addresses the difficult, complex, sensitive subject of death from a unique point of view. Drawing on insights from philosophers across the ages, the authors argue that death is a matter of profound educational importance. Paying particular attention to thinkers in the existentialist tradition, Philosophy, Death and Education shows that our understanding of death can play a key role in determining what, how and why we teach and learn. Death exerts an influence, often unnoticed, on our commitments and priorities, our ideals and relationships. A thoughtful examination of death, the authors suggest, can help us to see ourselves in a new light, and in so doing, allow us to better appreciate what others have to offer.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: Death: An Educational Perspective (PETER ROBERTS, R. SCOTT WEBSTER & JOHN QUAY)
  • Chapter One: Philosophy, Death and Education (PETER ROBERTS)
  • Chapter Two: Dancing with Death (R. SCOTT WEBSTER)
  • Chapter Three: Education, Attention and Transformation (PETER ROBERTS)
  • Chapter Four: Immortality, Uncertainty and Education (PETER ROBERTS)
  • Chapter Five: Educating the Horizon of Understanding (R. SCOTT WEBSTER)
  • Chapter Six: Learning From the Death of Others (JOHN QUAY)
  • Series index

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Death: An Educational Perspective


Often regarded as one of life’s few certainties, death is both instantly familiar to us and deeply mysterious. Every adult will have encountered death in some form, sometimes through the loss of a family member, sometimes less directly via friendships with others or the viewing of news items on television or the Internet. Yet, few take the time to examine death closely and to consider its significance in shaping and potentially educating human lives. This is, in part, because death can be a highly sensitive, ‘charged’ topic. Indeed, in the realms of human experience and thought, it is perhaps the most difficult subject of all. No reflective person can approach the question of death lightly. In existential terms, death holds us all to account: we cannot escape its clutches, yet we often spend our lives attempting to do just that. Death can be dignified but it can also be horrific. Death takes many forms, and attitudes towards it have varied greatly across different cultures and historical periods. Death generates its own distinctive rituals, reflecting the diverse pathways taken in understanding and responding to this one event that all lives have in common.

For centuries philosophers have wrestled with the meaning and significance of death, examining its ontological, epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic dimensions. The rich body of philosophical work associated with death stretches back more than 2000 years, in both the East and the West. Death has been a favorite theme too for novelists, playwrights, poets, and film-makers, and has featured prominently in the history of painting and sculpture. Death has been ←vii | viii→studied at length in a range of other academic fields, including Theology, Psychology, Sociology, and Anthropology. Educational theorists have, with some exceptions, been more reluctant to tackle this topic. The reasons for this relative lack of engagement are not clear. It may have something to do with the sensitivities to which we referred above. Or, perhaps it is believed that death is simply not relevant to the theory and/or practice of education and that little of value will come from work in this area. This book sets out to suggest otherwise. Drawing on insights from Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Unamuno, Heidegger, Levinas, and Weil, among others, the book considers some of the key elements of death as an object of philosophical investigation and explores its educational implications.

It is important at the outset to distinguish the terrain being traversed here from two other areas of inquiry. First, there is an established body of work on ‘death education’ (Fonseca & Testoni, 2011; Wass, 2004), but this is predominantly concerned with something quite specific: the provision and evaluation of educational initiatives designed to assess and enhance understanding of death and dying. Research in this area has been undertaken in a number of institutions and professional contexts, including schools (Puolimatka & Solasaari, 2006), universities and colleges (Brabant & Kalich, 2008; Fowler, 2008; Mak, 2011, 2013; Wong, 2009, 2017), community rehabilitation centers (Leung et al., 2015), social work and human services (Cacciatore et al., 2015; McClatchey & King, 2015), nursing (Cui et al., 2011), and counselling (Servaty-Seib & Parikh, 2014). There is also a substantial literature on the ‘philosophy of death’ (Luper, 2009; see also, Cholbi, 2016; Scarre, 2007), but this has been mainly the preserve of those working in philosophy departments, not educationists. Scholarship in this domain has focused on whether death is ‘bad’ for us (Belshaw, 2000; Bradley, 2004, 2007; Brueckner & Fischer, 1986; Cyr, 2016; Draper, 1999; Feldman, 2013; Hetherington, 2013; Johansson, 2013; Nagel, 1970; Stoyles, 2011), on the nature and desirability of immortality (Fischer, 2005; Fischer & Mitchell-Yellin, 2014; Smuts, 2011), and on whether it is rational to feel fear or terror in the face of death (Bradley, 2015; Draper, 2004; Murphy, 1976), among other areas.

‘Death education’ has a strong practical and professional focus; the ‘philosophy of death’ draws primarily on the analytic philosophical tradition in its methods and aims. Other approaches to the question of death are possible. There is, in particular, a longstanding interest in death among existentialist thinkers, and it is in this tradition that we place most chapters of the present volume. Death, we argue, has a valuable educational role to play in allowing us to better understand the nature, meaning and significance of human existence. The book begins, in the first chapter, with an overview of ideas on death from antiquity to the present day. The chapters that follow build on the philosophical foundations established in Chapter 1 and offer fresh perspectives on contemporary themes, questions and debates in education. In keeping with the history of existentialist inquiry, we do ←viii | ix→not construct rigid boundaries between different genres of work, drawing on literature as well as philosophy and educational theory in developing our argument. We have also been influenced by Kierkegaard and other existentialists in our decision to retain author names for each chapter. This is a co-authored volume, not an edited collection, and this project has been conceived and developed jointly, over several years, in a spirit of collegiality, dialogue and friendship. The book has been designed to be read holistically, not in parts, and there are clear thematic links across chapters. At the same time, we wanted to uphold the existentialist principle of respecting the integrity and distinctiveness of each individual authorial voice. Both our similarities and our differences are important in shaping the ideas developed in the pages that follow. As one of the first book-length studies of death from an educational perspective, there are risks associated with the scholarly exploration undertaken here. But we believe these are risks worth taking. We hope the book will be of interest to anyone who has probed this most troubling of subjects and will open up new areas for educational inquiry.


XIV, 128
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2023 (April)
KierkegaardHeidegger Levinas Unamuno Weil Tolstoy Philosophy, Death and Education Peter Roberts R. Scott Webster John Quay Philosophy Death Education Ontology Ethics Existentialism
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Lausanne, Oxford, 2023. XIV, 128 pp.

Biographical notes

Peter Roberts (Author) R. Scott Webster (Author) John Quay (Author)

Peter Roberts is Professor of Education at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. His teaching and research interests are in philosophy of education and educational policy studies. R. Scott Webster, PhD (Griffith), was Associate Professor at Deakin University in Melbourne. He is the author of several books including Caring Confrontations for Education and Democracy (2021) and Educating for Meaningful Lives (2009). John Quay, PhD (Melbourne), is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of several books including Education, Experience and Existence: Engaging Dewey, Peirce and Heidegger (2013) and Understanding Life in School (2015).


Title: Philosophy, Death and Education
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144 pages