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Randall Curren

Randall Curren is Professor of Philosophy and Education and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Rochester, NY. His works include Aristotle on the Necessity of Public Education. He is the editor of A Companion to the Philosophy of Education, of the journal Theory and Research in Education, and also of the recently published Philosophy of Education: An Anthology. Tim Madigan talks to him.

How did you get into the field of the philosophy of education?

I started reading in the philosophy of education when I was in high school in the early 1970s. I discovered philosophy early, in my sophomore year, by browsing in a local bookstore. I quickly found my way to Bertrand Russell. I think my collection was about three dozen books by Russell. I tried to read all of them, with greater or lesser success, and then I tried to read the people Russell talked about. For instance, I read Alfred North Whitehead’s The Aims of Education, which was a classic. I also read what Russell wrote on education, so I knew from him that Locke and Rousseau were considered major figures. I then was a co-editor of an underground paper in my high school, which was banned for sale on campus. Our first issue was devoted to various critiques of the school itself. My article used Whitehead’s theory of the cycle of learning as a basis for critiquing the testing practices of our school. Many years later, when I was president of the Association for the Philosophy of Education and involved in screening papers for presentation at the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, there was a paper submitted which had essentially the same idea as the one I published in high school. I was rather amused by that. But that’s how I first came to the field. In the Seventies there were several big books published, especially in the UK, in analytic philosophy of education.

Who were some of the philosophers writing in that area?

R.S. Peters and his philosophical partner P.H. Hirst, Israel Scheffler, Robert Dearden. In 1973 Peters edited a book on the philosophy of education for Oxford. It was pretty representative: Mary Warnock, Richard Pring, Hugh Socket; David Hamlin, who was a friend of Peters who wrote a lot in metaphysics. Peters was involved in trying to draw other philosophers from what was referred to as ‘mainstream philosophy’ into writing about education.

Do you recall what John Dewey’s standing was during this period?

Well, in the United States, Dewey still dominated: most people trying to teach philosophy of education were Deweyans. In the Sixties and Seventies you began to see the emergence of an analytic philosophy of education – but the way it was done was displeasing to many people. The way methods of philosophical analysis developed in the hands of people like Russell and G. E. Moore, Austin and Ryle, and the formal school people like Carnap, was that they were all beginning with traditional philosophical problems. In the early years, they were often specifically trying to demolish elements of philosophical idealism. British philosophy was dominated by Hegelians at the turn of the 20th Century, when Russell came under the sway of G.E. Moore. The two of them were leaving Hegelian idealism behind.

So you had established philosophical problems that analytical tools were being used on. But that’s not what happened in the philosophy of education. In a really odd way, when people began to invent the field, many were doing conceptual analysis, but it didn’t have a lot of edge to it in many cases since they weren’t bringing the techniques to bear on problems that people cared about, where they could show the power of the techniques. For instance, they would begin by asking “What is education?” or “What is teaching?” – “Let’s analyze these questions from scratch.” The work could be very dry, and not much of it addressed the big practical questions. I think of philosophy of education as practical philosophy in the broad sense. It’s a branch of philosophy that’s not merely trying to understand things in a certain domain, but is ultimately aiming to guide practice.

Speaking of that, you talk about a direct connection between Dewey’s philosophy and the rise of public education on a mass scale in the United States in the 20th Century. Practical questions arose regarding how to educate the vast numbers of immigrants and their children that might not have been pertinent in previous times. Locke’s philosophy of education stressed how to educate the children of the aristocracy to become proper gentlemen.

Well, it’s easy to overestimate the practical influence Dewey’s philosophy of education had on schools. It’s not clear to me how influential he really was. I’m not a scholar of Dewey, but he’s the first big philosopher of education who grappled with what public schooling would be like in a democracy. He’s looking at the rise of state school systems where state schooling is being harnessed in the service of some kind of national project. And he’s rather horrified by the consequences of that. If you read things he was writing during the First World War, he’s looking for a way of decoupling public schooling from nationalistic projects, making it more democratic, in his understanding of what constitutes democracy. The simplest way to put it is that education should be in the service of a kind of human flourishing, in a way ultimately very similar to the way that communal life in a democracy should promote human flourishing. They’re both operating on the same moral principles and so have to reflect each other. I don’t deny that Dewey was the preeminent philosopher of education through much of the 20th Century. The matter of how much progressive education was a product of his thought and how much a product of other things, is less clear.

Coming back to Bertrand Russell: he was more skeptical of public education as a panacea.

Well, Russell was an old English aristocrat who didn’t see any particularly compelling reason for sensitive young children to have to be schooled alongside ruffians. I also don’t think he had any particular truck with the notion that we should shut down what we Americans call private schools. He did run an experimental progressive school himself for a while, though. There’s a strong ideal of personal freedom in all of Russell’s writings on education.

Do you think the analytic and pragmatic approaches to the philosophy of education both attempted to deviate from the models of Plato and Aristotle on how to educate citizens?

Let me dispute two presumptions in that question. First, I don’t think that the analytic work was at all united in proposing any model – that would be overestimating the doctrinal unity of the analytic movement. The closest I could come to identifying a common analytic message would be to say that it opposed indoctrination. So, in Scheffler, and a lot of the other classical analytic figures in education, there was in one way or another an insistence on teaching in a way that would awaken students’ rational powers and treat them as rational beings. Beyond this, I’d be hard pressed to find any core doctrinal orientation that would have any practical upshot.

The other thing I’m a little queasy about is the idea that there is a pragmatist approach to education. I know this is high heresy to say this [laughs], but I really see little connection between Dewey’s pragmatism and his educational thought. I know there are supposed to be obvious connections – modeling both a society and a classroom on the practices of a scientific community, to collaborate on solving problems where you have no authority figure and everyone contributes. That’s supposed to be pragmatic. But it’s only pragmatic if pragmatism is reduced to experimentalism – the doctrine that all knowledge is established experimentally. Even then pragmatism would only motivate one aspect of the educational vision. And it wouldn’t fully justify even that one aspect; neither would it be essential for justifying even that aspect. Philosophers of education who remain influenced by Dewey often invoke the idea that he destroyed the ‘quest for certainty’ and draw a sharp contrast with Plato. They think it’s just evident that if you have a non-pragmatic approach to knowledge then straightaway you’re going to have Plato’s Republic. That’s a preposterous view. If you can’t find any other basis on which to set aside Plato’s Republic, you’re not thinking hard enough. In fact, I think Dewey has some sympathies with elements of the Aristotelian project, and even the Platonic project. To be fair, he’s got all sorts of nuanced criticisms of their views as well.

What do you think is the current state of the philosophy of education?

I think it has been gaining strength for about two decades now, since the publication of Amy Gutmann’s book, Democratic Education. There has been a great revival in connection with political theory and policy studies, but also in the history of philosophy and ethics, and even to some extent in connection with epistemology. All of this has helped bring the field back to substantive issues, and has made it a lot more interesting. What we’ve seen in recent years in the field of the history of philosophy is not just a return of interest in the Greek classics, but an across-the-board reevaluation of the history. Scholars have finally been recovering the long neglected educational dimensions of major philosophical works. When I wrote Aristotle on the Necessity of Public Education we were well into a major revival of Aristotle’s Politics, but no one had yet made a general study of the educational aspects of Aristotle’s political thought. There was a little bit of writing on moral development in Aristotle’s work, and some classicists linked his writings on education to contemporary debates over communitarianism and liberalism, but that was about all there was, in English, I should point out. But I think we’ve seen a significant revival in classical thought that has contributed a lot to the philosophy of education. Philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Alasdair MacIntyre may be the most obvious examples, but there are many others. There is some very interesting work being done on Kant, taking note of the fact that Kant was best known in his lifetime as a philosopher of education. If you had studied any random selection of Kant scholarship up until five years ago, you would have had a hard time believing that, but it’s true. The entry on Kant in A Companion to the Philosophy of Education points this out, and places his work on human development within the broader intellectual trends of his time – a time of enormous interest in pedagogy. The Enlightenment Project was itself an educational movement. We are recovering the true Kant in a way that’s both very interesting and very exciting for anyone who thinks that philosophy of education is significant.

Why did you call your book Aristotle on the Necessity of Public Education?

Well, there’s an interesting fact about the history of anthologizing Aristotle. In the 19th Century there was a movement in the UK to republish the classics of educational thought. But what was republished was only Books VII and VIII of Aristotle’s Politics – those are the closing books, and often considered the first ones Aristotle wrote, and the most Platonic. These are the parts where he describes the best possible city and what would have to be the case for that city to exist. In Book VII he stresses the care that would have to be put into childbirth and upbringing, and in VIII the need for formal and public education. So my starting point was looking at the very brief passage that opens Book VIII, where Aristotle says no one would doubt that the most important task of a legislator is public education. He’s unequivocal in saying that education is a more fundamental and important tool of statesmanship than the law. The enforcement of law plays a negligible role in the ancient world. In any case, the quick arguments that come in the beginning of Book VIII, which claim it’s so obvious that education is important to a city, and that it should be public and the same for all citizens, are not impressive. I think that is partly what is responsible for the long neglect. But I think the publication history of philosophy of education anthologies is more significant here. Publishing just VII and VIII together encouraged the thought that this is the whole of what Aristotle says and that they’re self-contained chapters. The premise of my book is that nothing can be further from the truth. The Nichomachean Ethics and the Politics are announced by Aristotle as parts of the same project, which he calls ‘political science’, and there are many connections between the two books. The more I worked on it, the more I became convinced that you really could not at all understand what he has to say about education if you just read VII and VIII of the Politics. You really must read them in the context of the whole practical philosophy of Aristotle. When you do I think you can see that the arguments at the beginning of VIII are mere summaries of lines of thought that run through the whole of his political science; the whole of his ethics and politics. When you see it in that way, they are actually much deeper, more powerful arguments.

You say those passages are referred to as Platonic by many scholars.

Werner Jaeger was responsible for a way of reading the Politics as a chronology of views instead of a unified work. According to Jaeger, VII and VIII were very early and heavily influenced by Plato. The middle Books were the latest, and then the opening Books came in between. This is allegedly a cobbling together of different periods of Aristotle’s thought. Well, that’s how you might read a text if you’re a historian bent on placing everything within periods – but it doesn’t make any sense at all given that we know these texts embody lectures that Aristotle gave repeatedly. There’s every reason to hold that he still believed everything in these Books right up to the end. The challenge is to figure out how to read them together as one coherent set, which is something I put a lot of time into. By the time my book appeared other scholars had made some very serious parallel efforts.

In your introduction to Philosophy of Education: An Anthology you compare Plato’s Republic and The Laws. Why is this significant for philosophy of education?

Aristotle’s Politics is very close to Plato’s Laws. Aristotle tries to distance himself from the Laws in some significant ways, but the influence is heavy and very clear. There are disputes about whether the Laws represents a change of mind on Plato’s part, or whether it’s just written with a different purpose than the Republic. The thing that’s striking about the Republic is that it tells us almost nothing about how an ideally just city would be governed. There are commentators who say the Republic shouldn’t be considered a work of politics because in many ways it doesn’t begin to answer the kinds of questions we would have about the political life of society. It’s arguably much more a work of moral theory. If you move to the Statesman you get a little bit more about how a city would actually be governed; and if you move to the Laws you really learn about how a city – a real city of actual human beings, not of gods – would be governed. That’s my reading. In the Republic Plato asks, What would an ideally just city look like? And he says that in order to have such a city, you’d have to have a god or gods among men to govern it. There’s a different question for the Laws, which is this: suppose we’re just dealing with ordinary human beings – what kind of political regime would we want? And the answer is: well, since we couldn’t trust any mere human beings to be above the law, what we need is a rule of law. But what would a constitutional rule of law look like – a rule of law above which no man stands? That’s a very interesting question, which had not been systematically pursued before. And the Laws is an impressive work in the sense that it really systematically develops that picture of what it means to have a rule of law, not of men. In that sense it’s fundamental to the whole tradition of constitutional rule. And it’s there that I think you begin to see an extremely powerful idea that’s really fleshed out later by Aristotle. It’s a Socratic idea that Plato cherished from the very beginning of his work. You just can’t see it operating nearly as clearly in the Republic because that’s asking a different question.

The Socratic commitment is to deal with people through truthful and reasoned persuasion first and as much as possible, and only use force and violence if necessary. This opposition of persuasion and force is a very common one in Greek thought. I’ve argued that Plato’s attempts to purify Socratic thought begin from an ethic of respect for reason, and by the time we get to the Laws we see a really systematic unfolding of this ethic for public life. One aspect of this is the idea that it is wrong to impose law by force. The right way to legislate is what Plato calls the ‘double method’ – not just announcing the laws and backing them up with force, but preparing the ground for people to be able to understand the reasons for the laws being what they are. A basic education that strengthens and empowers the reasoning part of human beings makes them gentleand comprehending, not wild animals. It’s mandated because it’s part of bearing the burden of respecting people as rational beings. I argue that that’s basic to the Socratic ethic Plato’s working from.

Does that connect with Aristotle’s philosophy of education?

Yes. You see various expressions in a number of Plato’s writings of the idea that the intellect is the divine or best part of us, the part we need to strengthen and listen to if we’re going to live well. Socrates seems to say that we all bear a burden not to undermine each other’s rationality, and to positively encourage each other to be rational. So if you’ve got some collective capacity to enable people to grow up more rational, more moved by the best part of the soul, then you have an obligation as a society to do this. You see this very clearly in the Laws; and building on that, you also see a core educational mission for free day schools that are the same for everyone. The prescribed curriculum – using the Laws itself as a textbook – aims at a positively philosophical understanding of what is good for human beings and how the constitution and laws are grounded in that. It sounds wacky, but that’s the way to teach people to voluntarily, rationally accept the reasonable burdens of reasonable laws. And then you’ve got a rule of law by rational and informed consent , not imposed by force. It’s the only just and ethical way to do it. I think Aristotle takes that way of thinking and in some ways tries to push a little beyond it.

Where do you see the philosophy of education going?

Well, predicting the future is always perilous. There are two things that have contributed to a renaissance in philosophy of education which I think will continue for some time to come. One: as I mentioned, there is a wealth of important work in the history of philosophy that’s making a variety of figures interesting for us again. Two: the flowering of practical and professional ethics has been quite impressive, and it’s very striking the extent to which ethics of education has lagged behind. There’s nothing like a reader in the ethics of education comparable to the dozens of works in biomedical ethics, for instance. There should be much more work in this field. We all spend many years in educational institutions being subjected to various things, and no one really seriously imagines there aren’t important ethical issues at stake. But I think there’s an unfortunate prejudice that since education has to do primarily with children, it’s not as important as things that have to do with adults. I would say that work in the ethics of education will become an increasingly important area in philosophy of education in the near future.

Tim Madigan is our Food for Thought columnist and a US editor of Philosophy Now.

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