Philosophy of Education
William K. Frankena
Nicholas C. Burbules
The word education is used sometimes to signify the activity, process, or enterprise of educating or being educated and sometimes to signify the discipline or field of study taught in schools of education that concerns itself with this activity, process, or enterprise. As an activity or process, education may be formal or informal, private or public, individual or social, but it always consists in cultivating dispositions (abilities, skills, knowledges, beliefs, attitudes, values, and character traits) by certain methods. As a discipline, education studies or reflects on the activity or enterprise by asking questions about its aims, methods, effects, forms, history, costs, value, and relations to society.
The philosophy of education may be either the philosophy of the process of education or the philosophy of the discipline of education. That is, it may be part of the discipline in the sense of being concerned with the aims, forms, methods, or results of the process of educating or being educated; or it may be metadisciplinary in the sense of being concerned with the concepts, aims, and methods of the discipline. However, even in the latter case it may be thought of as part of the discipline, just as metaphilosophy is thought of as a part of philosophy, although the philosophy of science is not regarded as a part of science. Historically, philosophies of education have usually taken the first form, but under the influence of analytical philosophy, they have sometimes taken the second.
In the first form, philosophy of education was traditionally developed by philosophers–for example, Aristotle, Augustine, and John Locke–as part of their philosophical systems, in the context of their ethical theories. However, in the twentieth century philosophy of education tended to be developed in schools of education in the context of what is called foundations of education, thus linking it with other parts of the discipline of education–educational history, psychology, and sociology–rather than with other parts of philosophy. It was also developed by writers such as Paul Goodman and Robert M. Hutchins who were neither professional philosophers nor members of schools of education.
As there are many kinds of philosophy, many philosophies, and many ways of philosophizing, so there are many kinds of educational philosophy and ways of doing it. In a sense there is no such thing as the philosophy of education; there are only philosophies of education that can be classified in many different ways.
Philosophy of education as such does not describe, compare, or explain any enterprises to systems of education, past or present; except insofar as it is concerned with the tracing of its own history, it leaves such inquiries to the history and sociology of education. Analytical philosophy of education is meta to the discipline of education–to all the inquiries and thinking about education–in the sense that it does not seek to propound substantive propositions, either factual or normative, about education. It conceives of its task as that of analysis: the definition or elucidation of educational concepts like teaching, indoctrination, ability, and trait, including the concept of education itself; the clarification and criticism of educational slogans like “Teach children, not subjects”; the exploration of models used in thinking about education (e.g., growth); and the analysis and evaluation of arguments and methods used in reaching conclusions about education, whether by teachers, administrators, philosophers, scientists, or laymen.
To accomplish this task, analytical philosophy uses the tools of logic and linguistics as well as techniques of analysis that vary from philosopher to philosopher. Its results may be valued for their own sake, but they may also be helpful to those who seek more substantive empirical of normative conclusions about education and who try to be careful about how they reach them. This entry is itself an exercise in analytical philosophy of education.
Normative philosophies or theories of education may make use of the results of such analytical work and of factual inquiries about human beings and the psychology of learning, but in any case they propound views about what education should be, what dispositions it should cultivate, why it ought to cultivate them, how and in whom it should do so, and what forms it should take. Some such normative theory of education is implied in every instance of educational endeavor, for whatever education is purposely engaged in, it explicitly or implicitly assumed that certain dispositions are desirable and that certain methods are to be used in acquiring or fostering them, and any view on such matters is a normative theory of philosophy of education. But not all such theories may be regarded as properly philosophical. They may, in fact, be of several sorts. Some simply seek to foster the dispositions regarded as desirable by a society using methods laid down by its culture. Here both the ends and the means of education are defined by the cultural tradition. Others also look to the prevailing culture for the dispositions to be fostered but appeal as well to experience, possibly even to science, for the methods to be used. In a more pluralistic society, an educational theory of a sort may arise as a compromise between conflicting views about the aids, if not the methods, of education, especially in the case of public schools. Then, individuals or groups within the society may have conflicting full-fledged philosophies of education, but the public philosophy of education is a working accommodation between them. More comprehensive theories of education rest their views about the aims and methods of education neither on the prevailing culture nor on compromise but on basic factual premises about humans and their world and on basic normative premises about what is good or right for individuals to seek or do. Proponents of such theories may reach their premises either by reason (including science) and philosophy or by faith and divine authority. Both types of theories are called philosophies of education, but only those based on reason and philosophy are properly philosophical in character; the others might better be called theologies of education. Even those that are purely philosophical may vary in complexity and sophistication.
In such a full-fledged philosophical normative theory of education, besides analysis of the sorts described, there will normally be propositions of the following kinds:
1. Basic normative premises about what is good or right;
2. Basic factual premises about humanity and the world;
3. Conclusions, based on these two kinds of premises, about the dispositions education should foster;
4. Further factual premises about such things as the psychology of learning and methods of teaching; and
5. Further conclusions about such things as the methods that education should use.
For example, Aristotle argued that the Good equals happiness equals excellent activity; that for a individual there are two kinds of excellent activity, one intellectual (e.g., doing geometry) and one moral (e.g., doing just actions); that therefore everyone who is capable of these types of excellent activity should acquire a knowledge of geometry and a disposition to be just; that a knowledge of geometry can be acquired by instruction and a disposition to be just by practice, by doing just actions; and that the young should be given instruction in geometry and practice in doing just actions. In general, the more properly philosophical part of such a full normative theory of education will be the proposition it asserts in (1),(2), and (3); for the propositions in (4) and hence (5) it will, given those in (3), most appropriately appeal to experience and science. Different philosophers will hold different views about the propositions they use in (1) and (2) and the ways in which these propositions may be established.
Although some normative premises are required in (1) as a basis for any line of reasoning leading to conclusions in (3) or (5) about what education should foster or how it should do this, the premises appearing in (2) may be of various sorts–empirical, scientific, historical, metaphysical, theological, or epistemological. No one kind of premise is always necessary in (2) in every educational context. Different philosophers of education will, in any case, have different views about what sorts of premises it is permissible to appeal to in (2). All must agree, however, that normative premises of the kind indicated in (1) must be appealed to. Thus, what is central and crucial in any normative philosophy of education is not epistemology, metaphysics, or theology, as is sometimes thought, but ethics, value theory, and social philosophy.
Let us assume, as we have been doing, that philosophy may be analytical, speculative, or narrative and remember that it is normally going on in a society in which there already is an educational system. Then, in the first place, philosophy may turn its attention to education, thus generating philosophy of education proper and becoming part of the discipline of education.
Second, general philosophy may be one of the subjects in the curriculum of higher education and philosophy of education may be, and presumably should be, part of the curriculum of teacher education, if teachers are to think clearly and carefully about what they are doing.
Third, in a society in which there is a single system of education governed by a single prevailing theory of education, a philosopher may do any of four things with respect to education: he may analyze the concepts and reasoning used in connection with education in order to make people’s thinking about it as clear, explicit, and logical as possible; he may seek to support the prevailing system by providing more philosophical arguments for the dispositions aimed at and the methods used; he may criticize the system and seek to reform it in the light of some more philosophical theory of education he has arrived at; or he may simply teach logic and philosophy to future educators and parents in the hope that they will apply them to educational matters.
Fourth, in a pluralistic society like the United States, in which the existing educational enterprise or a large segment of it is based on a working compromise between conflicting views, a philosopher may again do several sorts of things. He may do any of the things just mentioned. In the United States in the first half of the twentieth century professional philosophers tended to do only the last, but at the end of the twentieth century they began to try to do more. Indeed, there will be more occasions for all of these activities in a pluralistic society, for debate about education will always be going on or threatening to be resumed. A philosopher may even take the lead in formulating and improving a compromise theory of education. He might then be a mere eclectic, but he need not be, since he might defend his compromise plan on the basis of a whole social philosophy. In particular, he might propound a whole public philosophy for public school education, making clear which dispositions it can and should seek to promote, how it should promote them, and which ones should be left for the home, the church, and other private means of education to cultivate. In any case, he might advocate appealing to scientific inquiry and experiment whenever possible. A philosopher may also work out a fully developed educational philosophy of his own and start an experimental school in which to put it into practice, as John Dewey did; like Dewey, too, he may even try to persuade his entire society to adopt it. Then he would argue for the desirability of fostering certain dispositions by certain methods, partly on the basis of experience and science and partly on the basis of premises taken from other parts of his philosophy–from his ethics and value theory, from his political and social philosophy, or from his epistemology, metaphysics, or philosophy of mind.
It seems plausible to maintain that in a pluralistic society philosophers should do all of these things, some one and some another. In such a society a philosopher may at least seek to help educators concerned about moral, scientific, historical, aesthetic, or religious education by presenting them, respectively, with a philosophy of morality, science, history, art, or religion from which they may draw conclusions about their aims and methods. He may also philosophize about the discipline of education, asking whether it is a discipline, what its subject matter is, and what its methods, including the methods of the philosophy of education, should be. Insofar as the discipline of education is a science (and one question here would be whether it is a science) this would be a job for the philosopher of science in addition to one just mentioned. Logicians, linguistic philosophers, and philosophers of science may also be able to contribute to the technology of education, as it has come to be called, for example, to the theory of testing or of language instruction.
Finally, in a society that has been broken down by some kind of revolution or has newly emerged from colonialism, a philosopher may even supply a new full-fledged normative philosophy for its educational system, as Karl Marx did for Russia and China. In fact, as in the case of Marx, he may provide the ideology that guided the revolution in the first place. Plato tried to do this for Syracuse, and the philosophes did it for France in the eighteenth century. Something like this may be done wherever the schools “dare to build a new society,” as many ask schools to do.
Dewey once said that since education is the process of forming fundamental dispositions toward nature and our fellow human beings, philosophy may even be defined as the most general theory of education. Here Dewey was thinking that philosophy is the most general normative theory of education, and what he said is true if it means that philosophy, understood in its widest sense as including theology and poetry as well as philosophy proper, is what tells us what to believe and how to feel about humanity and the universe. It is, however, not necessarily true if it refers to philosophy in the narrower sense or means that all philosophy is philosophy of education in the sense of having the guidance of education as its end. This is not the whole end of classical philosophy or even of philosophy as reconstructed by Dewey; the former aimed at the truth rather than at the guidance of practice, and the latter has other practical ends besides that of guiding the educational enterprise. Certainly, analytical philosophy has other ends. However, although Dewey did not have analytical philosophy in mind, there is nevertheless a sense in which analytical philosophy can also be said to be the most general theory of education. Although it does not seek to tell us what dispositions we should form, it does analyze and criticize the concepts, arguments, and methods employed in any study of or reflection upon education. Again it does not follow that this is all analytical philosophy is concerned with doing. Even if the other things it does–for example, the philosophy of mind or of science–are useful to educators and normative theorists of education, as, it is hoped, is the case, they are not all developed with this use in mind.
WILLIAM K. FRANKENA
Philosophy of education is a field characterized not only by broad theoretical eclecticism but also by a perennial dispute, which started in the mid-twentieth century, over what the scope and purposes of the discipline even ought to be. In the “Philosophy of Education” article that was included in the previous edition of this encyclopedia, William Frankena wrote, “In a sense there is no such thing as the philosophy of education” (p. 101). During certain periods of the history of the philosophy of education, there have been dominant perspectives, to be sure: At one time, the field was defined around canonical works on education by great philosophers (Plato of ancient Greece, the eighteenth-century Swiss-born Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others); at other times, the field was dominated, in the United States at least, by the figure of John Dewey (1859–1952) and educational Progressivism; at other times, the field was characterized by an austere analytical approach that explicitly rejected much of what had come before in the field as not even being proper “philosophy” at all. But even during these periods of dominance there were sharp internal disputes within the field (such as feminist criticisms of the “Great Man” approach to philosophy of education and vigorous critiques of the analytical method). Such disputes can be read off the history of the professional societies, journals, and graduate programs that institutionalize the field, and they can be documented through a succession of previous encyclopedia articles, which by definition attempt to define and delimit their subject matter.
These sorts of struggles over the maintenance of the disciplinary boundary, and the attempt to define and enforce certain methods as paramount, are hardly unique to philosophy of education. But such concerns have so preoccupied its practitioners that at times these very questions seem to become the substance of the discipline, nearly to the exclusion of thinking about actual educational problems. And so it is not very surprising to find, for example, a book such as Philosophers on Education. Consisting of a series of essays written by professional philosophers entirely outside the discipline of philosophy of education, the collection cites almost none of the work published within the discipline; because the philosophers have no doubts about the status of the discipline of philosophy of education, they have few qualms about speaking authoritatively about what philosophy has to say to educators. On the other hand, a fruitful topic for reflection is whether a more self-critical approach to philosophy of education, even if at times it seems to be pulling up its own roots for examination, might prove more productive for thinking about education, because this very tendency toward self-criticism keeps fundamental questions alive and open to reexamination.
Any encyclopedia article must take a stance in relation to such disputes. However much one attempts to be comprehensive and dispassionate in describing the scope and purpose of a field, it is impossible to write anything about it without imagining some argument, somewhere, that would put such claims to challenge. This is especially true of “categorical” approaches, that is, those built around a list of types of philosophy of education, or of discrete schools of thought, or of specific disciplinary methods. During the period of particular diversity and interdisciplinarity in the field that has continued into the twenty-first century, such characterizations seem especially artificial–but even worse than this, potentially imperial and exclusionary. And so the challenge is to find a way of characterizing the field that is true to its eclecticism but that also looks back reflexively at the effects of such characterizations, including itself, in the dynamics of disciplinary boundary maintenance and methodological rule-setting that are continually under dispute.
One way to begin such an examination is by thinking about the impulses that draw one into this activity at all: What is philosophy of education for? Perhaps these impulses can be more easily generalized about the field than any particular set of categories, schools of thought, or disciplinary methods. Moreover, these impulses cut across and interrelate approaches that might otherwise look quite different. And they coexist as impulses within broad philosophical movements, and even within the thought of individual philosophers themselves, sometimes conflicting in a way that might help explain the tendency toward reflexive self-examination and uncertainty that so exercises philosophy of education as a field.
The Prescriptive Impulse
The first impulse is prescriptive. In many respects this is the oldest and most pervasive inclination: to offer a philosophically defended conception of what the aims and activities of teaching ought to be. In some instances, as in Plato’s Republic, these prescriptions derive from an overall utopian vision; in other instances, such as seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education or Rousseau’s Émile, they derive from a fairly detailed reconception of what the day-to-day activities of teaching should look like; in still other instances, such prescriptions are derived from other social or moral principles, as in various Kantian views of education (even though eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant himself had very little to say on the subject). These prescriptive inclinations are in many respects what people expect from philosophy of education: a wiser perspective, a more encompassing social vision, a sense of inspiration and higher purpose. It is what people usually mean when they talk about having a “philosophy of education.”
A broad range of perspectives in the field share this prescriptive impulse: many of these perspectives can be comprised in what was once called the “isms” approach (perennialism, idealism, realism, Thomism, and so on)–the idea that a set of philosophical premises could generate a comprehensive and consistent educational program. For many years, working out the details of these “philosophies of education” was considered the main substance of the field, and the debates among the “isms” were typically at the very basic level debates among fundamentally different philosophical premises. An implication of this approach was that disagreements tended to be broadly “paradigmatic” in the sense that they were based on all-or-none commitments; one could not, of course, talk about a synthesis of realist and idealist worldviews.
One wag has suggested that the “isms” have more recently been replaced by the “ists”–less purely philosophical and more social/political theories that now typify many scholars working in philosophy of education (Marxists, feminists, multiculturalists, postmodernists, and so on). These will be characterized as critically oriented philosophies below, but at this stage it is important to see that these perspectives can be equally driven by the prescriptive impulse: many writers (for example, neo-Marxist advocates of Paulo Freire’s “critical pedagogy”) offer quite explicit accounts of how education ought to proceed, what it is for, and whose interests it ought to serve.
The Analytical Impulse
The second impulse that drives much of philosophy of education is analytical. In a broad sense this includes not only philosophical approaches specifically termed “analytical philosophy” (such as conceptual analysis or ordinary language analysis), but also a broader orientation that approaches the philosophical task as spelling out a set of rational conditions that educational aims and practices ought to satisfy, while leaving it up to other public deliberative processes to work out what they might be in specific. In this enlarged sense, the analytical impulse can be seen not only in analytical philosophy per se but also in studies that focus on the logical and epistemological criteria of critical thinking; in the diagnosis of informal fallacies in reasoning; in certain kinds of liberal theory that spell out broad principles of rights and justice but that remain silent on the specific ends that education ought to serve; and even in some versions of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s theory, which proposes a structure of communicative deliberation in which conversations must satisfy what he calls a set of general “validity” claims, but which does not specify or constrain in advance what that process of deliberation might yield.
The analytical impulse is often seen as expressing a certain philosophical modesty: that philosophers do not prescribe to others what their educational choices ought to be, but simply try to clarify the rational procedures by which those choices should be arrived at. Here metaphors such as referees who try to adjudicate an ongoing activity but remain nonpartisan within it, or groundskeepers who pull up weeds and prepare the soil but do not decide what to plant, tend to predominate in how this version of philosophy of education is presented and justified to others. The idea that philosophy provides a set of tools, and that “doing philosophy of education” (as opposed to “having a philosophy of education”) offers a more workmanlike self-conception of the philosopher, stands in sharp contrast with the idea of philosophy as a system-building endeavor.
Of course, it must be said that this impulse is not entirely free of the prescriptive inclination, either. For one thing, there is a prescriptiveness about the very tools, criteria, principles, and analytical distinctions that get imported into how problems are framed. These are implicitly (and often explicitly) presented as educational ideals themselves: promoting critical thinking or fostering the conditions for Habermasian communication in the classroom, for example. However rationally defended these might be, they will undoubtedly appear to some as imposed from “on high.” Moreover, at a deeper level, the analytic/prescriptive distinction is less than clear-cut: a theory of logic, or a theory of communication, however purely “procedural” it aspires to be, always expresses conceptions of human nature, of society, of knowledge, of language, that contains social and cultural elements that might appear “natural” or “neutral” to the advocates of those procedures, but that will be regarded as foreign and particularistic by others (“why must I justify my educational choices by your criteria?”). This is not meant as a criticism of the analytical orientation, but it just shows how these impulses can and do coexist, even within accounts that regard themselves as primarily one or the other.
The Critical Impulse
Similarly, the third impulse, a critical orientation, can coexist with either or both of the others. The critical impulse, like the analytical one, shares the characteristic of trying to clear the ground of misconceptions and ideologies, where these misrepresent the needs and interests of disadvantaged groups; like the prescriptive impulse, the critical impulse is driven by a positive conception of a better, more just and equitable, society. Where the critical impulse differs from the others is in its conception of the contribution philosophy can play in serving these ends. From this orientation, philosophy is not just a set of tools or an abstract, programmatic theory; it is itself a substantive personal and political commitment, and it grows out of deeper inclinations to protect and serve the interests of specific groups. Hence the key philosophical ideas stressed in critically oriented philosophies of education (reflection, counterhegemony, a critique of power, an emphasis upon difference, and so on) derive their force from their capacity to challenge a presumably oppressive dominant society and enable put-upon individuals and groups to recognize and question their circumstances and to be moved to change them.
As there are prescriptive and analytical elements in critically oriented philosophies of education, so there can be critical elements in the others. Philosophers of education more driven by a prescriptive or analytical impulse can and do share many of the same social and political commitments as critically oriented philosophers of education; and some of them may see their work as ultimately serving many of the same goals of criticizing hegemonic ideologies and promoting human emancipation. This is why these three impulses or orientations must not be seen as simple categories to which particular philosophies (or philosophers) can be assigned. Stressing their character as impulses highlights the motivational qualities that underlie, and frequently drive, the adoption of particular philosophical views. While philosophers tend to stress the force of argument in driving their adoption of such views, and while they do certainly change their minds because of argument and evidence, at some deeper level they are less prone to changing the very impulses that drive and give vigor to their philosophical investigations. By stressing the ways in which all three impulses can coexist within different philosophical schools of thought, and even within the inclinations of a given philosopher, this account highlights the complex and sometimes even contradictory character of the philosophical spirit. When philosophers of education teach or speak about their views, although they certainly put forth arguments, quotations of and references to literature, and so forth, at a deeper level they are appealing to a shared impulse in their audience, one that is more difficult to argue for directly, and without which the arguments themselves are unlikely to take hold.
Implications of the Impulses for Philosophy of Education
Given the existence of these three impulses, how can they help in providing an overview of the field of philosophy of education that does not fall into arguments about disciplinary boundary maintenance? First, these very broad orientations are in many respects easier to generalize within the field than would be any specific set of disciplinary criteria; many different kinds of philosophy of education can manifest these sorts of inclinations. Indeed, it makes for strange bedfellows when people consider that despite their vigorous paradigmatic differences they are actually motivated by very similar underlying philosophical commitments. Perhaps this recognition might create a stronger incentive for them to engage one another respectfully across those differences.
Second, it is beneficial for philosophers to consider that the validity they attribute to certain kinds of arguments may not be driven simply by the objective force of those arguments, but also by a particular appeal those kinds of arguments have for them. This sort of reflectiveness might be fruitful for various reasons, but a significant benefit could be in raising a person’s appreciation for why others may not be moved by the arguments that seem so patently obvious to that person; and why the force of argument alone may not be sufficient to generate philosophical agreement or reconcile disagreement. Given the pervasively eclectic and interdisciplinary nature of the field of philosophy of education, such a spirit of tolerance and inclusiveness, while not needing to be unbounded entirely, would be a valuable corrective to the historical tendency to establish the methodsor the philosophical school that will separate proper philosophy of education from the imposters.
Advocates of more prescriptive approaches typically buttress their case for dominance by reference to canonical Great Works (Plato, ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, Dewey). This sort of system-building across epistemological, ethical, and social/political issues is what the great philosophers do, and it is revealing that for them philosophy of education was rarely seen as a distinct area of inquiry but merely the working out in practice of implications for teaching and learning that were derived from their larger positions about truth, value, justice, and so on.
Advocates of more analytical approaches, as noted, tend to put more reliance upon the tools of philosophical investigation, and less on particular authors or sources. In the twentieth century, versions of these approaches tended to dominate philosophy of education, especially in the English-speaking world, as they have many departments of philosophy itself. Indeed, when one surveys accounts of the field of philosophy of education from the 1990s forward, they nearly all chart the history as one of the rise to dominance of an analytical approach and then a succession of critiques and attacks upon it.
Advocates of more critical approaches suffer from a particular difficulty–carrying out their philosophical work in a way that is consistent with their broader commitments. Naturally, any philosophical approach aspires to consistency of some sort; but to the extent that critically oriented philosophers are concerned with challenging power structures, hegemonic belief systems, and universalisms that obscure, not to say squelch, the particular beliefs, values, and experiences of those whom they seem to empower, such philosophers must also endeavor to avoid these potentially oppressive tendencies in their own writing and teaching. This tension is perhaps felt most acutely by contemporary post-modern philosophers of education, but it can be seen in much of the work of neo-Marxists, critical theorists, feminists, and Foucauldians as well: how to argue for and promote an emancipatory approach to education that does not itself fall into the habits of exclusionary language, authoritative (if not authoritarian) postures, and universalizing generalizations that are excoriated when detected in the work of others.
This entry has tried to provide an overview of how the field of philosophy of education has seen itself, and it has recounted major elements in the narratives by which the history of the field has been traced by others. At the same time it has tried to reveal problems with the ways in which these different accounts have been driven in part by various agendas to define a scope and boundary for the field, and often to privilege one or another approach to philosophy of education, even when they have endeavored to be comprehensive and fair to all views. This entry has taken a different approach, first, by resisting the temptation to provide a single definition or characterization of the field; and, second, by stressing not schools of thought or methodological divisions as the categories for thinking about the field, but rather the underlying inclinations, or impulses, that animate philosophical inquiry. As noted, for a field that tends to resist and argue over every attempt to define it, such caution is probably prudent, but it has an added benefit as well. When philosophers think about the impulses that motivate their areas of inquiry and ways of thinking about them, they relate their philosophical work not solely to an abstract order of truth but to themselves; and it is a short step from that recognition to extending that way of thinking to others as well. The generosity of outlook that results might be the one thing that all philosophers of education can share.