Education and Belief: Ontology

Educational philosophy raises four distinct but related questions:  What is education for? What is the nature of the child? What is the role of adults? Who decides which view is right?

The last post highlighted several prominent disputes about the purpose of education. Even if we agreed about the purpose of education (say, that it existed to transmit knowledge and to foster democratic citizenship), the second and third questions – how we think about the nature of the child and the role of adults – are also deeply contested and lead to quite different pedagogies. This is because they ask us to consider our basic assumptions about human nature. This is what the Greeks called an ontological question, since it concerns the essence or the nature of a thing.

Two broad conflicts have played out in American education: the first between the traditionalist and the progressive, the second between the religionist and the secularist. What are the ontological distinctions between them?

The traditionalist views the child as the recipient of important knowledge that is meant to inspire, equip and equalize. The traditionalist teacher is a leader who guides children through the thicket of knowledge to intellectual independence. Traditionalists are likely to support a core curriculum taught in chronological order, the technology of reading and grammar, high academic standards for all students, and subject rather than education degrees for teachers. Traditionalists believe that such programs will close the achievement gap and prepare children for democratic citizenship.

The progressive views the child as the creator of knowledge, experience and the self – not the recipient of information deemed important by others. The teacher’s role is not to inform but to draw out the child’s innate curiosity and creativity. The progressive view has three expressions – the scientistic, the expressivist, and the activist – all of which reject the traditional curriculum in favor of studies that attempt to foster (as the case may be) social or vocational efficiency, creative expression, or political change. Progressives believe their model prepares students for democratic engagement, and that a more open-ended classroom trains students to think critically in a way that traditional education does not.

The tension between these two views spanned the entire 20th century and continues today. The progressive approach has dominated colleges of education and school districts since the 1920s, with brief attempts from traditionalists to contravene. One example is the debate between Jerome Bruner and Neil Postman in the 1960s. Bruner’s The Process of Education (1960) was based on a conference of scientists and humanists who concluded that American students were woefully under-educated, that university professors should help shape K-12 education, and that children are most creative when most challenged. This led Brunner to propose a “spiral curriculum” of incremental knowledge in each discipline, beginning in grade school and ending in university – a view that challenged the progressivism that had long characterized K-12 education. Bruner’s idea generated publicity but no meaningful reform.

Neil Postman and Charles Weingarten’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969) offers a clue as to why Bruner’s plan never got off the ground. Building upon progressive assumptions about the child, Postman and Weingarten rejected differentiated subjects, textbooks, grades, and statements of fact in the classroom in favor of student-led questions that were of immediate and personal relevance. The authors viewed conventional schooling as hostile to learning and advocated instead community-based programs that emphasized process rather than content, “learning how to learn” rather than learning a body of knowledge. The book was a runaway hit, and its cast of mind influenced educators for years to come. In his Preface to the second edition of The Process of Education (1977) Bruner attributed the failure of the spiral curriculum to the demand for relevance and freedom from adult authority – exactly what Weingarten and Postman had advocated.

While Postman and Bruner represent quite defined intellectual perspectives, actual classroom experience has generally been more moderate. Progressives such as John Dewey in the United States and Percy Nunn in the UK supported a traditional curriculum, as long as it did not claim to present moral or intellectual truth but instead sponsored students’ own self-expression. Many traditionalists, on the other hand, imported pieces of the progressive agenda into their more formal classrooms in the form of group projects or “hands on” learning.

Despite nods to the other side, however, the progressive view really dominated 20th century American educational theory and practice. The current debate over academic standards needs to be seen in this light: today’s educators have been trained in the progressive pedagogy but are now being asked to support a set curriculum and externally mandated, fact-based tests. It is a conflict of culture and of belief.

The second important debate in American education is between secular and religious views of the child and of schooling. Secularists believe that education must be agnostic about the religious and spiritual dimensions of children. Education’s role is to train children’s emotions and intellect, not guide their devotional life. This model insists upon ideological neutrality, so teachers must not promote their or anyone else’s beliefs in the classroom. Some educational secularists may be personally religious but are concerned about the possibility of religious indoctrination in the classroom and the violation of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state.

The religious view, in contrast, asserts that children are spiritual as well as intellectual and emotional beings, and that a thorough education must address all three. Teachers are encouraged to impart religious values, and the atmosphere of the school is designed to foster religious commitment or at least raise its possibility. In contrast to secularists, religious educators hold the belief that education is not neutral and value-free, and that omitting questions about God is itself indoctrinatory. Religious educators sometimes assert that jurisprudence has become too weighted against religious liberty.

Again, in practice there is sometimes an overlap between these opposing views. An educational secularist might support education about religion while rejecting religious formation. A religious person might support a secular classroom, as many Protestants did in the late 19th century in order to marginalize Catholic influence. Yet on balance, the secularist view has dominated American education since the mid-19th century.  In response, religious people have either complied, sometimes unwillingly, or created parallel private educational institutions.

But this begs the question. If education inevitably involves basic questions of human nature, meaning and destiny, then why should one view be privileged above another? Why should progressive and traditionalist educators have to compete for influence, or secular and religious perspectives not coexist and cooperate? In a liberal democracy such as ours, why shouldn’t there be room for many different pedagogical approaches?

The answer is historical: since the 1840s American education has privileged uniformity over diversity, and our state constitutions and national jurisprudence have reinforced it. There are many reasons for this (see the next post) but the result is that we have grown culturally accustomed to structures that do not much bend to plural views. Other liberal democracies have taken a different path. For example, the Netherlands supports seventeen types of religious schools plus twenty-five other pedagogical types. For the Netherlands as for many other liberal democracies, public education means state support for diverse educational beliefs and pedagogies within a framework of academic standards and expectations.

Recent American educational reforms – charter schools, vouchers, cyber-education, Teach for America – are driving us towards diversity, but they can only go so far. To create structural, lasting change, we need to think of public education differently. The next post, therefore, will begin to address educational pluralism in the light of American history and jurisprudence.

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