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Philosophy of Education

Updated on October 8, 2010

To be sure, opinions have differed about man, society, and knowledge. Is man naturally good or bad? Is he born with certain abilities that can be developed but not changed? Or does the environment in which he grows up determine what kind of man he is, how clever he becomes, and how much he is able to learn? Are all men born equal? Or are some from birth better and cleverer than others? Can only a few men perform certain tasks, or do all men have the capacity to do all things? These questions are still being debated. Since the 18th century, however, there has been a movement of opinion toward the principle that all men are equal, or ought to be treated as equal.

Views about man and his abilities are closely correlated in the writings of philosophers with their views about society and how its affairs should be conducted. Is the "good" society one that ought not to change very much? Or is social change good in itself? Is the best society one in which each person knows his job, fits into his own niche, is happy to do so, and remains there most of his life? Or is the good society one in which individuals are able to move freely from one job to another and can compete for better paid jobs with higher status and prestige? Is the good society one in which a jw wise and knowledgeable men- the elite-offer political and cultural leadership? Or ought all men and women to participate actively in the political and cultural life of the society in which they live? Are all men equally capable of becoming leaders? Should leaders inherit from their fathers their position in society? Or should members of any elite be elected to that position? Or should they become members of it by virtue of their superior abilities and knowledge?

The organization of schools depends very much on the answers given. Debates have been endless but the movement toward accepting democratic ideals has been gaining momentum. The peoples of the world expect to participate actively in government. Increasingly they resent Icings and princes whose positions are based on the accident of birth. Moreover age, with its accumulated experience and wisdom, is no longer held in the esteem it once was as a criterion of leadership. Technical ability and professional knowledge are replacing qualities previously held in high regard as criteria for positions of social leadership. The democratization of education has consequently become a major aim.


Beliefs About Knowledge

Knowledge is still important. What is it? Who can acquire it? And in what ways can it be taught and learned? Is it a matter simply of rational thinking? Or can knowledge only be acquired by looking at, touching, hearing, or smelling-that is, by observing? Is man's mind or brain the source of his knowledge, or does it depend in the first instance upon his senses? Many philosophers, of course, would argue that both his mind and his senses are involved in learning.

Concepts of this world differ too. For some philosophers it is made of bricks and mortar- of things that can be weighed, measured, and molded to man's needs. It is a world of atoms whose behavior can be studied, and this material world is the one we know. On the other hand, some thinkers have argued that the important and knowable world is the world of ideas and ideals. These do not change and, once known, make wise and good action possible. For many centuries both the materialists and the idealists tended to believe that, in a world of change, men could know those things that did not change. The materialists study indestructible atoms or their parts; the idealists study those ideas that persist and that inform all aspects of our lives.

Sources of Authority

These questions and the answers given to them about the nature of man and society and the nature of knowledge have profoundly influenced the aims of education. Two major sources of authority should be mentioned. The first is religious belief which has almost always been considered a source of truth and wisdom. Primitive religions have many gods who interfere directly in the lives of the people. World religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam appeal to sacred books as the basis of worthwhile knowledge. Prophets and priests have from time to time interpreted this knowledge afresh, but the basic ideas have remained the same. Each of these religions has given rise to a system of beliefs that includes, as one important element, aims for education.

The second source of authority is man himself. Humanism gives man responsibility for his knowledge; no source outside himself can provide it. To be sure, in observing or thinking about a real world around him he has to depend on carefully developed techniques in order to learn all about it. Nevertheless, according to this view man's knowledge of himself and the society in which he lives does not depend on divine revelation, or sacred books, or the interpretations of specially selected persons. Knowledge can, in theory at least, be acquired by all men. This is the faith of the scientist, and it has become increasingly important since the applications of scientific knowledge to our everyday lives have become so obvious and numerous.

Development of Major Themes in Educational Philosophy

A study of the history of educational ideas, of course, shows how many strands have contributed to present thinking and debates in the field of education. Broad patterns of development can, however, be traced by referring to major figures in philosophy. Special attention will be given to die ideas that have influenced the theory and practice of education in Europe and the Americas, but important aims in education can be found in Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Confucianism.

Greek Influences. European-American traditions in education are usually taken to spring from the writings of the classical Greek philosophers, notably Plato and Aristotle. Perhaps of the two, Plato's views on education throw the more light on modern aims of education and current controversies about them. Plato's Republic offers a blueprint for the "good" society. Individuals within it inherit from their parents abilities that can and should be developed through education. The all-around development (aesthetic, moral, physical, and intellectual) of individuals according to their individual abilities has long been, and remains, an important aim of education. According to Plato, however, only a few children have the innate potential to benefit from education. These few, the philosopher-kings, should be educated for social responsibility and leadership. Their source of knowledge is a form of intuition. The rest of the people should be trained to perform happily their allotted tasks in a stable society.

Aristotle shared Plato's views in thinking that education should prepare citizens to participate actively in civic affairs. He emphasized logic as the source of knowledge and restricted the content of education to the liberal arts. Education was for the few persons who would constitute his democratic society. The rest, the majority, should be prepared for the manual work.

Developments in Europe. For many centuries in Europe, elitist education remained a strong tradition. The emphasis given to moral, aesthetic, physical, or intellectual development varied, but under the influence of Christian leaders great attention was paid to moral and intellectual education. The aim of education then was to develop a good man and a clever one. Goodness was related to Christian or Judaic ethics; cleverness to theories of knowledge that laid great stress on logic and rhetoric. Aristotelian views still dominated the aims of schooling. Even when humanism began to emerge again after the Middle Ages the emphasis of men such as Erasmus was on the classical writings of Greek and Roman scholars. The curriculum remained largely the seven liberal arts.

The Renaissance and the Reformation. The Renaissance and the Reformation were important turning points in the history of ideas and in the aims of education. The first reintroduced Platonic and other Greek traditions in addition to that of Aristotle. The second was significant because Luther and Calvin, in challenging the power of the Roman Catholic Church, turned from revelation as the fundamental source of knowledge to the written word (the Bible) which all could understand if they were able to read. To be sure, the idea of a moral elite persisted, but the possibility emerged that man could redeem himself through his good works.

The 17th and 18th Centuries. The 17th and 18th centuries witnessed the flowering of two important movements that profoundly influenced the aims of education. The first may be ascribed to the Bohemian scholar Comenius, who extended enormously the range of information he regarded as relevant in education. He also thought that knowledge should be made much more widely available. Moreover, he placed great emphasis on observation as a way of learning, in contrast to the importance the tradition of Aristotle placed on logical thinking. Comenius was religious, a member of a Protestant group, but the tradition in education that he helped to create was taken over by humanists. In some cases these thinkers not only rejected religion as the basis of the aims of education but turned away from the classical curriculum to one more firmly based in the "new" sciences: the physics of Galileo, the chemistry of Boyle, and the mathematics of Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton.

The 18th century encyclopedists stressed that education should open the minds of all people to a broad range of knowledge. With John Milton, the 17th century English poet and philosopher, they stressed the civic purpose of education. Education should, for Milton, prepare a man "to perform generously and magnanimously the offices both public and private of peace and war." In France during the revolutionary period, Condorcet urged the National Assembly to promote education that would enable all citizens to know their rights and to discharge their duties and responsibilities in a democratic society.

Thomas Jefferson in the newly created United States advocated similar aims for education. He thought, of course, that a republican form of government was best. But he did not regard all men as equal except before the law. He maintained that there was a natural aristocracy of talent. The aim of education should be not only to provide the masses with a basic civic education but also to select the talented members of society and train them for leadership.

The other important movement of the 17th and 18th centuries was the growth of nationalism in education. Through the 18th century the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in western Europe and the temporal power of the Holy Roman Empire had helped to set a pattern of education that was, with small but important differences, common to the continent as a whole. The aims were similar; the content and methods of teaching were largely the same.

The political breakup of the Holy Roman Empire was accompanied by greater cultural diversity. Associated with the desire to extend educational provisions more widely was the view that schooling ought to be provided in the vernacular, the language of the people. In France, Descartes helped give French education a unique flavor by writing in the vernacular. His own philosophical ideas, which represented a radical break with tradition, were incorporated into French schools. As a result, French schools developed characteristics that distinguish them sharply from English, German, or Russian schools.

The 19th and 20th Centuries. These movements toward encyclopedic knowledge and the participation of all in the processes of democracy effectively presaged the introduction of mass education and the development of national systems of education. If the 17th and 18th centuries were the seedbed of ideas, the 19th and 20th have been centuries of educational achievement as far as the mass of people are concerned. During the 19th century distinctive national traditions began to emerge. Among the most important are those of France, Germany, England, the United States, and the Soviet Union.


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      it's very useful, i used it for my school report.Thanks much! :)

    • MoneyCreator24 profile image


      7 years ago

      Thank you for sharing this very informative hub. voted up

    • edelhaus profile image


      7 years ago from Munich, Germany

      Very well written and informative, thank you! voted up.


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