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Education for All

by Rick Lewis

In this ‘Back to School’ issue of Philosophy Now we’ll ponder some philosophical problems connected with education. But what is the point of philosophy of education? Do teachers actually take any notice of what the theorists have to say? Terrifyingly, the answer is sometimes yes. In fact there have been all sorts of theories and approaches which have had a big impact on classroom practice, for better or worse. I say ‘terrifyingly’ without intending any disrespect to educational theorists – I just want to point out that the responsibility on their shoulders is huge. No wonder some of them occasionally feel the need to cloak their ideas in a thick, comforting layer of jargon and hide them away in professional journals. But in a world which is ever-more technologically and socially complex, education is king and new educational ideas need to be debated out in the open, in the clean sweet air. Therefore, many thanks to Tim Madigan in America and Graham Haydon in Britain for gathering the articles in this issue, to Randall Curren for an interview which makes an excellent introduction to the whole topic, and to all our contributors.

What kinds of questions are asked by philosophers who fret about education? Well, here are some examples: What should be taught? Can you teach children about right and wrong without indoctrinating them? Should you indoctrinate them? What are the ethical pitfalls in education? How does one acquire or transmit knowledge? What is it to know something anyway?

These questions have been around for a long time, and some of the giants of the history of thought have involved themselves in educational theory. That involvement hasn’t always been a happy one. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote the classic Emile, a novel which is also a major treatise on education and childrearing, yet he abandoned five children of his own on the steps of an orphanage. Bertrand Russell started a progressive experimental school called Beacon Hill to apply his own educational ideas.

According to legend, when the local vicar came to call on the school, the doorbell was answered by a girl aged about six, stark naked. “Good God!” said the vicar. “He’s dead! Heeheeheee,” replied the girl, slamming the door. The freewheeling school eventually closed. Russell’s friend Ludwig Wittgenstein taught in Austrian primary schools in the 1920s. Like Russell, he believed in stimulating the natural curiosity of children and their ability to think independently, but his disciplinary approach was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Russell’s; after striking a pupil who then fainted, he had to resign. A more structured approach to education was taken by the Jesuits, who supposedly said: “Give us the child for the first seven years and we’ll give you the man.” Plainly this didn’t work in the case of Descartes, who had a Jesuit education but whose thinking couldn’t have been foreseen by them or by anyone else. Confucius, like many Eastern philosophers, put the education of the young at the very centre of his concerns. So, in a way, did Socrates; he always had a troop of young disciples who he taught to reason and to question everything. Massively successful in this, his results were nonetheless wildly controversial – which is why one of the charges on which he was eventually tried, convicted and executed was ‘corrupting the youth of Athens’. Socrates was notoriously more interested in the cultivation of humanity generally than in the upbringing of his own sons.

Educational issues don’t just concern young children, Athenian youths or modern university students. Like it or not, we all keep on learning throughout our lives; some people in a formal way at adult education classes, and others just from their experiences in work or elsewhere. Questions such as, “how are our ideas influenced by our social environment?” are therefore relevant to all of us, as are some of the other problems in philosophy of education as well. Education in this sense is for everybody, so read all about it here!

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