“Formal education…presents pictures or maps of reality that reflect, unavoidably, particular choices about what is certain and what in question, what is significant and what unworthy of notice.  No aspect of schooling can be truly neutral.” – Charles Glenn, The Myth of the Common School (1988).

If Glenn is correct that knowledge occurs within a map of reality, then we need to look at the map’s assumptions. This is the work of educational philosophy, which asks four key questions:

  1. What is the purpose of education?
  2. What is the nature of the child?
  3. What is the role of the teacher?
  4. Who has or should have educational authority?

Schooling addresses these questions, even if implicitly.  An insistence upon high academic standards, for instance, implies something about the purpose of education, our view of the child who is being educated, and the locus of authority.

What I’d like to do in the next few posts is to look at each question and some of the ways each has been answered in the United States. My intent is not to argue that any one answer is right or wrong (although I do have my personal preferences). Rather, I want to highlight the sheer variety of responses and then examine how America and other liberal democracies differ in managing them.

First, a note to those interested in the policy implications. These concerns will become clearer after a discussion of educational pluralism (next week). At the end of the month I’ll post an annotated bibliography for those who want to follow up on the major cultural, philosophical and historical themes.

What is the purpose of education?

This is what the Greeks called a teleological question, one that focuses on the “telos” or purpose of something. What is education for? How would we know if we had achieved it? There are wonderful educational histories that chronicle contending theories, and I won’t discuss them now. My purpose here is merely to suggest in broad brush a few alternatives that have found their way into American classrooms. Educational theorists have at times advocated education for citizenship, for survival, for vocation, for social adjustment, for self-expression, for social radicalism and for spiritual development. Although these emphases are not necessarily mutually exclusive, in practice they often have had a way of crowding out other concerns.

Early educational leaders thought education existed to equalize opportunity and to form wise citizens. How? By popularizing an aristocratic curriculum. This humanistic approach assumed that education meant initiating children into a longstanding conversation about meaning and purpose, forming strong character, teaching them to recognize and protect the tenets of liberty and preparing them to engage in civic debate.

Another impulse focuses more narrowly on civic identity. But how one teaches citizenship is contested. For example, does it come from civics courses, community service, a strong history curriculum? The same applies to a focus on character and moral formation. Whose version of character should prevail?

Herbert Spencer, the father of Social Darwinism and perhaps the late 19th century’s most influential voice in American education, proposed that education should “fit children to life.” He believed that education should prepare children to survive in contemporary society, which for him meant the dawn of the industrial age. Spencer rejected a humanistic curriculum in favor of a utilitarian approach that his  disciples used to sort students by their intelligence and  likely station in life.

Romantic progressives preferred (and prefer) education for self-expression. Numerous pedagogues from Caroline Pratt in the 1910s to A.S. Neill, who wrote in the 1930s but whose ideas gained prominence in the 1970s, developed a pedagogy that emphasized the interests of individual students and that discouraged adult interference. For them, the purpose of education was to draw out the child’s innate nature, not to impart wisdom or information.

Another approach emphasized social radicalism. This is what George Counts and his journal, The Social Frontier, called for in the 1920’s and ‘30s. A contemporary example is Peter McLaren’s influential Life in Schools, which legitimates education only if it inculcates “revolutionary praxis.”

Or is education for religious nurture? In the early days of the Republic, it was assumed that schools would reinforce commonly held devotional practices and beliefs – an assumption that was challenged as the 19th century progressed (more on this in a future post). Even from the beginning those who granted the need for religious and moral formation in schools disagreed about what it meant. Many Protestants were content with daily Biblical readings and textbooks that reflected a general Christian worldview. Roman Catholics, in contrast, adopted a more holistic approach that viewed the secular and religious components of schooling as inseparable.

This overview represents only a small sample of ways educational theorists have dealt with the question of purpose. Each has adherents in today’s educational landscape and some of them are profoundly influential. Yet most of the time there is no straight line between theory and practice. Theories overlap; teachers disagree; ideas that carry weight in elite institutions look different elsewhere. Then there is always the sobering thought that what we intend to accomplish might not be what we actually achieve.

If Charles Glenn is right, and I believe that he is,not only the curriculum but also the structures and practices of the school system reflect a teleology that goes from theory all the way down to practice. This is true even if the original rationales have been forgotten. What we think education is for, of course, depends upon what we believe about the human person. This is the subject of the next post.

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