Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Journey is Almost Over....Into the 
Those Nitty Gritty Courses 
...and that means papers!

This one started out as NOT my favorite. I even referred to it as a 'stupid assignment', regressing into my 12 year-old's view of the world ;)
Can't you just tell that he knows EVERYTHING ?

Find your Top 10 Philosophers, and their theories of Education. It seems I've lost the ability to read, and regurgitate...I just have to insinuate myself, my classroom, my content into everything!!

How did we get here? After all, I spend a significant part of my day, my life, embedded in education.  I am a public school teacher, an institution with a long and significant history in our culture, and in the history of civilization. I am a student, always. I am a student of my students, I am a student of my own evolution, and I am a student in pursuit of my master’s in education. A goal so close I can taste it. So, it does seem relevant to reflect on the historical significance of how educational theory has developed. This is the task, and a daunting one since I know well, that this is an area outside of my strengths.

            In the beginning….or at least the classical period of philosophy there were the big three. We have all heard of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. Early Greece forms the picture for me of what early culture and civilization embodied, and therefore I felt compelled to delve in to it. Throughout this research, I am amazed at the paradox of how both everything has changed, and yet, so much remains the same. Classical education focused on the full development of the individual as a whole person. The end result being that a fully realized person is capable of contributing to the society or culture in any of multiple directions. I believe this truth to still be true, with the stated caveat that we each have our own potentials in certain areas, therefore the goal is to live up to, or educate up to that level.  In this setting, a Trivium was followed as the path a child follows in education beginning with a grammar phase, then a logic/dialectic stage, and then as they near adulthood, the rhetoric stage. Socrates the educator, challenged his pupils to then rise through the “levels of reality to the highest, truest knowledge of what is”.

            I was struck by the first time I saw Socrates dialogues described as rambling. I had thought him so revered, and knowledgeable. As I read on, it was made clear by several authors, that they were describing his technique, which then seemed very familiar to me. First he would look at an idea from as many points of view as possible, as we do as teachers, to find that one key to engagement for each of our students. As embedded as we are in 21st Century Learning, I couldn’t help but see this as a version of, the teacher as facilitator. This transition we are in now, maybe it is getting back to basics really. We guide our students to their own realization, because our realizations are useless to them. In the cave analogy, Socrates uses some reverse psychology, and some acceptance of where Glaucon is in his own development, to guide him, indirectly towards his own discoveries. Another current thought that lies in Socrates dialogues is that once an individual becomes educated, they must put this enlightenment to work, to give back, to raise the level of the cave, the city, the society. His educational philosophy in the Republic is more difficult for me to understand.  Socrates, as all science I believe, struggled with nature and education, or as is commonly stated, nature and nurture, believing the education can lead to a rise in nature.

            Since I enjoy seeing the big picture. I chose next to learn about a completely different and just as intriguing perspective, Confucius. His life ended as Socrates life began yet I imagine their lives and culture as so much more diverse. It appears that they both have similar reputations in their cultures, as being founding teachers. Where Socrates believed all people had the capacity for education, Confucius was radical in his culture for offering equal education for all. At the time, education was reserved for the noble families. My reading still refers to all, as all men. His premises appeal to me, and as a teacher, are necessary, that everyone is good at heart (nature), and capable of acting on it, knowing it.  One of his later followers contended that evil and ignorance comes from the failure to development these given abilities. Where Socrates pressed for the development of knowledge through dialogue and stories, Confucius’s view was that real knowledge was self-knowledge. Ultimately they were quite similar in their goal for individuals to reach their personal potential and that this was the preparation needed for life. Several authors mentioned that Confucius believed that those who did not want to learn could not be taught. Hmmm…seems so basic, yet contrary to our belief of an education for all, hence the continuing saga of how do we reach each individual? The Greek were verbose, with lengthy dialogues and writings, giving students the opportunity to swim in it and find what resonated for them. In contrast, Confucius gave some pearls that had to be tumbled and looked at through many angles to detect how to unlock its higher meaning. I think Yoda is a contemporary of this type of teaching.

            Medieval philosophy is fascinating in it’s entanglement with religion. This is also the reason I struggle with it. There is also the unfortunate name, medieval, or ‘in-between time’. That makes it sound less significant. However, in terms of education, there is the formation of a more recognizable system, in more recognizable cultures, for us. Western Europe developed monastic schools, which led to the monasteries that we are familiar with. The Greek-like tradition of following the teachings of an individual master continued. Then there were the Cathedral schools and Universities. The Cathedral schools being larger and associated with a particular church or bishop and, like the Monastic schools, were centers of religious training. A dominant Cathedral school that attracted a wide variety of students could become a University.  The university as we know it, it is a collection of colleges, each specializing in it’s own subject. This is where we begin to see these, originally as the arts, law, medicine, and theology. This is when philosophy and religion joined. Any philosophy that threatened religion was not readily taught, such as Aristotle’s metaphysics.

            Two philosophers of this time, who did align with Aristotle, were Thomas Aquinas, and John Duns Scotus. They both believed that knowledge has two forms, sensory and intellect, and that abstraction is how the intellect translates sensory information into understanding.  They both used philosophy to develop their theorems of proof of the existence of God and believed that metaphysics was a real theoretical science, which put them at odds with the Pope. (It is difficult to NOT put this in context of the papal decisions going on today.) Aristotle believed that all concepts come from creatures, and to that, Scotus would reply, “where will that analogous concept come from?”. This sort of repartee seems to be the nature of their relationship.

            As a Health Educator, I am caught by some of the topics of Thomas Aquinas. Parents as primary educators seems an eternal concept. However, he goes further.  In the Suma Contra Gentiles, a book that seems to ‘sell’ Christianity to non-believers, he discusses sexual and marital ethics such as “why simple fornication is a sin to divine law, and why marriage is natural”. (Again, current events, DOMA etc..are hard to keep out, especially since his contemporary Scotus, and SCOTUS). He further delineates the roles each parent is better suited for. He recognized the ‘family’ and ‘state’ as two different societies, and that the state should not interfere with the functions of the family. I believe that my entire curriculum would be considered ‘family’, yet here we are, 2013, and it is ‘state’. That aside, Aquinas seems to adhere, after determining that a man, and not just God, can be a teacher, to the idea of the teacher as a leader – leading the student to learn. What is worth learning? Science, mathematics, natural philosophy, and metaphysics. Logic will be the method of learning.

            As a bridge from Medieval to Enlightenment periods, Descartes was hailed the “Father of Modern Philosophy”.  He did not believe that all knowledge came from the senses, as Aristotelians did, and he also refined his metaphysical beliefs by making clear distinctions between the body and mind. His quest for absolutes, something not subject to doubt, begins with “I exist”. He manages to extend this to God. Eventually getting to “Je pense donc je suis”, translated to the famous, “I think therefore I am”. His metaphor of philosophy, describes the important subjects of education. The roots are metaphysics, the braches fall into three major categories, medicine, mechanics and morals.

            The Enlightenment again resonates with 21st Century Learning objectives. As this is the ‘age of reason’, critical thinking and civic engagement are mentioned. This time period is very influential in the establishment of our own society and educational practice. My heart sides with Rousseau, the romantic, and his ideal of a peaceable kingdom of ‘noble savages’. My independent streak follows Voltaire, the writer’s name, who embraced freedom of religion. So this is the Enlightenment that the Medieval time was holding place for. It does seem to be a round about route back to Plato’s The Republic.

            Kant moves us to consider space and time. He agrees that most knowledge is gained from experience, the senses, what we see, hear, and touch in our surroundings but, we also have innate knowledge. He called these a ‘priori’ which is Latin for ‘from the beginning’. When it came to education, obedience was his doctrine. Apparently, some see this as the obvious reaction to the disobedience of the original sin. I feel we are trying to dig out of a very Kant inspired school structure where, routine, structure, and obedience. What about motivation? As to the child’s proper motivation: “One often hears is said that we should put everything before children in such a way that they shall do it from inclination. In some cases, it is true, this is all very well, but there is much besides which we must place before them as duty. For in the paying of rates and taxes, in the work of the office, and in many other cases, we must be led, not by inclination, but by duty. "Even though a child should not be able to see the reason of a duty, it is nevertheless better that certain things should be prescribed to him in this way …”  I feel that I hear this today. His counterpart Locke saw it his way, from his Some Thoughts concerning Education (1692):“I am very apt to think, that great severity of punishment does but very little good; nay, great harm in education: And I believe it will be found, that, ceteris paribus, those children who have been most chastised, seldom make the best men.” And finally a quote from Kant that really speaks to the dissatisfaction of education today where so many kids truly ‘hate’ school: “Children should sometimes be released from the narrow constraint of school, otherwise their natural joyousness will soon be quenched”. This sounds contrary to good education to me, so I wonder why it stuck? I see a kind of detachment from thinking of children as humans, more like pods in need of development.
            Bridging the gap between Enlightenment and Modern philosophy is the Post-Enlightenment. We are in the Age of Idealism.  Enter Dewey, well known for his “Democracy and Education”. He believed that education was intrinsic to the “social continuity of life” and further stated that education was a necessity because the nature of life is to die, implying that education ensured continuity. There is so much in his work that resonates today. Conservative views of education as the standards, taught conventionally versus, inquiry based education, as well as the more liberal or broad view of subject matters versus the distinct vocational skills.
            Emma Willard was American; she was born in Connecticut, as the 16th of 17 children! She was fortunate that her father was unconventional and thought females were just as worthy of an education as males were. She was a reformer to me, going on to establish the first secondary school for females despite being denied financial means by the state of NY. The school endures today. Her selling arguments would be cringe worthy today but were a smart tactic to appeal to the male audience. She gave multiple reasons for educating females such as, “If, then, women were properly fitted by instruction, they would likely teach children better than the other sex: they could afford to do it cheaper: and those men who would otherwise be engaged in this employment might be at liberty to add to the wealth of the nation”. Thank you Emma Willard for getting female education started in the U.S.
            Montessori, the higher alternative to the slower change that is the public schools. I am ashamed to say that I do not know much about this, and I am intrigued that at least two of our class members have been trained in this. Without exception, the information I find about Montessori education all state that; “it must be observed to be understood”.  Dr. Maria Montessori stated in The Absolute Mind that “To aid life, leaving it free, however, to unfold itself, that is the basic task of the educator”. Again, the teacher in the role of facilitator. I am so glad that so many have realized this and so…embarrassed…that so many people, who are teachers believe that they are the fountains of knowledge, imparting it to their students. Often I found words or analogies to nature in this research…tending as if a garden, cultivating learning, sowing the seeds, capacity to grow. This methodology seems to build on the sensory route for learning discussed earlier. Gaining knowledge through the senses and then developing an understanding of that knowledge, as the means of educating the child.  This has been a common thread.
            Henry David Thoreau has always held allure. Who has not wanted to go out into the woods to experience living with oneself? I surely have a hundred times. I spent many summer days at Walden Pond when my oldest was just an infant. We would walk along and I would try to imagine what it must have looked like back then, and how the peace and serenity may have influenced Thoreau’s pacifist nature. I knew he left teaching because he wouldn’t use corporal punishment. Education was still in that time of obedience and routine, children were less what? Less human? Less valuable? They were a work in progress. Thoreau taught through conversation. This circles us back to Socrates and the dialogue. The Socratic Seminar has been revived lately. I find it is a great way to get students to question and push each other. Character education and a sense of connectedness are integral in his philosophy. “Thoreau reminds us that we need to have respect for our selves (conscience), others (society), and nature (stewardship).”
            Contemporary philosophy has many branches, too many to cover here. There were a couple of people I wanted to learn more about and I will end with a brief discussion of them. Because I have never had the opportunity to take time to study the female philosophers, I feel I have always just been presented with the usual, male, suspects.
            I was alive but somehow missed the Malcolm X years. Maybe it was that I was growing up in eastern Long  Island, in a high school with one black student. His story is impressive, Nebraska to Harlem, to the streets, to jail. Then there was the self-recognition that he was nearly illiterate and the devotion to improve. The politics being what they were, an angry black man, who was well read, self-taught in jail, and dedicated to teaching young students that white America had brainwashed them, well, that was definitely a threat to the status quo.  I am unclear, though I read quite a bit, of his educational philosophy other than he thought that education was essential, to raising black people up from discrimination. Turning from his anger to bell hooks seems a necessity.
            What better motivation than hope? I believe teaching does require hope, and faith in learning. Her early education, as she describes it sounds heavenly. All black schools, taught by black women who were determined to help a generation use education for betterment, to ignite them with knowledge. Then her descriptions of the post-busing ‘all white’ school sound so opposite, obedience, no fire, no threats were tolerated. Thank goodness she was already engaged with learning and determined to teach and write. “It is imperative that we maintain hope even when the harshness of reality may suggest the opposite” is a quote from one of her mentor’s Paulo Friere. You can hear how that sentiment would resonate with her. She advocated holistic education, and reflection on the part of students as well as teachers, to care for themselves as practitioners.
Teachers, philosophers, and thinkers have shaped education for thousands of years. It is continuing to evolve today. It can be rewarding and disheartening. It is valuable to see the perseverance of knowledge as an expression of our innate potential. Although many ideas are constant which could feel like a lack of progress, it seems quite the opposite, for these ideas to stand the test of time, through all these ages, makes it more valuable. Our audience changes but we are always trying to get them hooked on self-discovery, critical thinking, exploring ideas, with no end in sight.


hooks, bell (1994) Teaching to Transgress. Education os the practice of freedom. London: Pluto Press.
Burke, B. (2004) ‘bellhooks on education’, the encyclopedia of informal education.
Philosophy of Education by Hsueh-Li Cheng
Sun, Qi (2008) Confucian Educational Philosophy and it’s Implications for Lifelong Learning and Lifelong Education.Philadelphia: Routledge


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