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A Companion to the Philosophy of Education

Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Education

John Mann finds his encounter with a Blackwell Companion most educational.

What is it to be well-educated? How should we impart wisdom and knowledge to the young? Such questions are as old as philosophy and have been the concern of philosophers since ancient times. Do the forty-five articles in this book provide a comprehensive guide to philosophical thinking about education, as the dust jacket claims?

The book is broken into four parts: Historical and Contemporary Movements (Stoicism, Humanism, Romanticism etc); Teaching and Learning (Teaching Science, Teaching Elementary Arithmetic through Application, Teaching Literature etc); The Politics and Ethics of Schooling (Multicultural Education, Children’s Rights, Sex Education etc) and Higher Education (Academic Freedom, The Ethics of Research, Affirmative Action in Higher Education etc). The book forms part of the Blackwell Companion series, which also features such books as A Companion to Ethics, A Companion to Aesthetics, and A Companion to Epistemology.

The purpose of each essay is to introduce the reader to a particular topic, and provide a list of books for further reading. If you were interested in Romanticism and education for example you might want to read Frederick C. Beiser’s essay ‘Romanticism’ and follow this up with the books he lists on the subject. Each essay also lists related essays, so ‘Romanticism’ also references six other essays of related interest in the book (e.g. Essay 7 ‘Rousseau, Dewy and Democracy’ and Essay 8 ‘Kant, Hegel and the Rise of Pedagogical Science’).

The book might be seen as rather expensive: its six hundred and fifty six pages cost around £85, which works out at 12p per page or the equivalent of £24 for a two hundred page book. This isn’t excessive for an academic book but could be rather highly priced for the general reader. Balanced against this is the fact that to buy individual books on all the topics covered would certainly cost far more.

The book has three important strengths. Firstly, the fact that there are so many essays creates a great diversity of material. Even given a few reservations which I’ll come to in a moment, having such a variety of educational subjects in one book means that as you read through it, it is fascinating to look at education from so many different angles. Secondly, there are a number of very good essays in this book. Those by Yael Tamir and Gabriel Moran are discussed below, but I should also mention Mark Steiner’s ‘Teaching Elementary Arithmetic through Applications’; Robert F. Ladenson’s ‘Inclusion and Justice in Special Education’ and Michael R. Matthews’ ‘Teaching Science’ and these are not the only ones. Even if I would like to see more educational content and less philosophical context this is not to say that the philosophical context is at all an unappealing read. Lastly, there are rich and detailed accounts of educational experiences from the United States. As a UK resident, I found that learning about education in another country was absorbing, although the book would have gained from including more experiences from other countries as well.

As a school governor responsible for the multicultural curriculum I was eager to read Robert Fullinwider’s essay on ‘Multicultural Education’, but felt disappointed when I discovered that the article was written from a US perspective with only a few passing references to Britain. This is frequently true of the book, where, of the fifty-two contributors (some articles have more than one author), thirty-six are American. James Dwyer’s article on ‘Children’s Rights’ focuses almost entirely on the situation in the USA, where parents challenge the right of the state to determine what their children are taught. In these cases Fundamentalist Christians may insist their children are not taught evolution or Amish parents may insist that their children not attend school beyond the eighth grade (i.e. do not attend high school). Not all of the essays have this exclusive US focus – Gabriel Moran is Professor in the Philosophy of Education Program at New York University, yet his essay on ‘Religious Education’ covers the situation in the United States, England, Canada and Australia and also gives a fascinating overview of the role of the United Nations in religious education. Having an emphasis on education in the USA isn’t of course a criticism of the book per se, but potential readers may want to be aware of it.

One difficulty I had with some of the content mirrors my reaction to Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education (edited by Joy Palmer, Routledge: 2001) where a philosopher’s inclusion appeared to be as much because they were well known as because they had anything worthwhile to say on education. Too often in A Companion to the Philosophy of Education too much time is spent explaining philosophical ideas in general before covering the philosophy of education. The fact that Descartes has fourteen pages referencing him in the index compared to just five for Jean Piaget, the father of developmental psychology, makes this point clearly.

Douglas Kellner’s essay ‘Critical Theory’ is a good example of how difficult it is to get the balance right between covering the background to a theory and explaining the specific educational aspects of it. This is an essay I enjoyed and it does give a good explanation of Critical Theory, but this is how the twelve and a half pages break down:

• The first three pages give a brief summary of the thought of Karl Marx.

• The next page and a half explains that Marx didn’t have anything particularly detailed to say about education, but that later Marxists such as those influenced by Gramsci and Althusser did analyse curriculum and schooling in capitalist societies (and some references for further reading are given).

• The next two pages explain the Frankfurt School theorists and how their ideas were the beginning of cultural studies.

• The next four pages show how the Frankfurt School influenced British cultural studies and the likes of Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, and how this tradition was developed from the 1960s to the 1980s by theorists such as Stuart Hall. These studies showed how schooling integrates youth into capitalist societies and identified the ways in which working-class youths resist and rebel. Towards the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, cultural studies adopted a more postmodern approach, emphasising pleasure and consumption.

• It is only when we get to the last two pages that we are given short summaries of the more specifically educational ideas of Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren and Carlos Torres. Even then these are cut short by some concluding comments about the importance of neo-Marxism in providing a critical perspective on capitalism and globalisation.

I have chosen Kellner’s essay almost at random out of the various essays in Part 1 of the book simply to exemplify the problem faced by many of these authors. Educational thinkers exist in a philosophical context; therefore there is a need to explain the context before explaining the thinker. This caveat not withstanding, I suspect most readers will feel that many of these essays get the balance wrong in providing too much space to the context often leaving only very terse summaries of the educational ideas.

Do we really need such long introductions to Socrates, Stoicism, Judaism, the Enlightenment, Rousseau, Kant and Hegel in order to appreciate the implications of their philosophy for education? The article ‘The Analytical Movement’ makes the interesting point that “two people might accept the same philosophic positions and still reasonably disagree about how best to teach or what the curriculum should be. Conversely, two people might accept the same educational practices but justify these choices through different philosophical theories.” (p.182). I am sure I’m not going to be the only reader of this book wishing that this section gave less general explanations of philosophy and more discussion of how the ideas specifically affected education.

Of course, it is important for this book to include a section specifically on historical philosophy and education; it is important to understand the foundations and origins of our present education system. Nevertheless, although it is important to learn the origins of current ideas and theories, there is a thin line between explanation and justification, and a risk that perhaps there might be too few essays that question and challenge the existing educational system. One of the important roles of philosophy is to ask fundamental questions about our existing values. Political philosophy isn’t just about justifying our existing system of democracy; it is about questioning its assumptions and challenging its limitations and omissions. The same applies to the philosophy of education.

Part 2 of the book deals with Teaching and Learning, where the more practical aspects of education are discussed. In it, I would have liked to read more about philosophers who actually worked in education. Dewey is the obvious example (although the chapter in Part 1 of the book that covers him is excellent), yet Wittgenstein was a primary school teacher and Hegel a headmaster, and there are few attempts to make any links between their ideas and their experience of education. One exception is Mart Steiner, who in his essay ‘Teaching Elementary Arithmetic through Applications’ does argue that Wittgenstein’s experience as a primary school teacher profoundly influenced his philosophical positions.

Similarly there is no mention of Derrida’s work for GREPH, the research group for the teaching of philosophy. Derrida said “GREPH brings together teachers, high school and university students who, precisely, want to analyze and change the educational system, and in particular the philosophical institution, first of all through the extension of the teaching of philosophy to all grades where the other so-called basic disciplines are taught” (Politics and Derrida, 1995, Stanford University Press). Indeed, not only is there no mention of GREPH there is no discussion of the teaching of philosophy in schools. This latter omission is particularly disappointing as the movement for Philosophy for Children has been around for many years and analysis of it could perhaps shed an interesting light on the foundations of education.

Part 2 just doesn’t have enough discussions about educational ideas. This section should be packed full of Vygotsky, Piaget, Max Stirner, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Owen, Ivan Illich, Paulo Freire or, more recently, Professor Richard Pring and Dr David Cavallo. Where are the discussions of educational experiments such as the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont or the Sudbury Valley School in Farmingham, Massachusetts? Too often I felt I was getting very high level introductions to abstract ideas instead of feeling excited by brilliant and challenging ideas on education. Too few authors conveyed a passion for changing education for the better. An example of one of the new ideas being discussed on education is the website, which explores introducing compassion for animals into education; another area is the use of IT and the internet in education; another the influence of the mass media on children; unfortunately for all its strengths too few new ideas make their way into this section of the book.

Parts 3 and 4, on ‘The Politics and Ethics of Schooling and Higher Education’ contain insightful and powerful essays on rights, equality and justice, though still with disproportionately frequent references to the experience of the USA. In the 1960s Urie Bronfenbrenner published the extraordinary Two Worlds of Childhood: USA and USSR, a record of his study showing the startling differences between children in those two countries. Comparing global systems of education can throw some useful light on the dynamics of ethics, rights and responsibilities. Instead of comparing what should be with what is within one particular country, alternative global models of education can be included in the debate, making for a more rounded and practical appreciation of what is possible. This section doesn’t contain enough references to world education; it would feel more powerful if the content included studies that challenged our existing educational assumptions from a global perspective. Many readers will feel that for all its strengths this part of the book would have been enhanced by ensuring discussions on different educational systems included geographical, social and political examples.

One other misgiving I had about this section is that it occasionally misrepresents the philosophy underlying an educational practice. The ‘Multicultural Education’ article by Robert K. Fullinwider begins by reviewing the history of multiculturalism in the US with an extended discussion as to how inclusive the term ‘culture’ can be. Is multiculturalism a celebration of diversity, covering race, gender, age, disability, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity, or is it more particularly concerned with prejudice and discrimination and promoting respect for victim-groups? Can mafia families, religious evangelicals and mountain folk be included as ‘cultures’? Should multiculturalists prioritise the issue of race and racism? Thus far the essay could be subject to the same concerns given above as to how much time is spent giving us the context of the debate and how much on the detail of educational ideas. However, towards the end the author argues against the use of postmodernism and critical theory to support multiculturalism – he claims such views are philosophically inconsistent in that they attempt to use both postmodern relativism and ‘old-fashioned’ equality and social justice. Such a criticism is highly contentious given that much of Derrida’s later work was concerned with justice and rights. Interestingly the essay following ‘Multicultural Education’ is ‘Education and the Politics of Identity’ by Yael Tamir (Professor of Philosophy and Education at Tel Aviv University) which offers a much more positive reading of multiculturalism and is exemplary in its mix of educational content to non-educational context.

This book is a fascinating read that I am sure many people will enjoy; I hope my reservations do not discourage readers from sampling this feast of educational philosophy.

© John Mann 2005

John Mann is a former vice-chair of school governors at St Mary’s Primary School Hadleigh. His day job is a Research and Development Manager in an international software company.

A Companion to the Philosophy of Education (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy) ed. by Randall Curren. Published by Blackwell 2003 pb £22.99 pp 656 ISBN: 0631228373.


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