My Philosophy of Education
Jane Fowler Morse
What is my philosophy of education? Hard to formulate. . . . But wait, I teach this stuff. I should be able to do it. Maybe I can’t choose one simple account because there are too many possibilities. It would be nice to be able declare something easy like Skinner’s, “All learning is conditioning,” or its opposite, Sartre’s “Human beings are condemned to be free,” or Dewey’s “Education is growth” (Dewey), and be done with it. But such aphorisms don’t capture much, even for their authors. Maybe a philosophy of education is too complicated to write out concisely enough for a web site. Good excuses, huh? But let’s see what happens if I try. One condition I must impose to start with: my philosophy of education is eclectic. That is what I teach and that is what I practice. Secondly, education is life (Dewey), so my philosophy of education is my philosophy of life, or better yet, my philosophy—although that sounds far too pretentious. Well, to start, a few preliminaries: education involves knowledge (somehow), which requires an epistemology or theory of knowledge. Since we want to educate children to be good people, education also requires ethics, both ethical behavior on the part of the teacher and ethical principles adopted by the student. Education is profoundly political, too, so I will have to look at that dimension as well.
To me, epistemology is fundamental. What is knowledge, what kinds of things can people know, how certain can they be of what they know, how do people acquire knowledge, how do teachers teach it? In my epistemology, I follow Kant, but must acknowledge his successors’ emendations and additions. So the first element of my philosophy of education is that there is a cognitive side to knowledge, comprehended by reason, and an empirical side, provided by sense experience. Neither is complete by itself. We must have sense experience, but we must “make sense” of it somehow. So far so good, but it gets more complicated. According to Kant, we formulate concepts rationally, but what if these do not relate to sense experience? They must, or they have no application. OK, so what if we use sense experience to formulate concepts that relate to sense experience? Hmm…that might be circular, making these concepts figments of our imagination, especially if sense experience is not properly understood from the outset. Despite these difficulties, it is clear to me that somehow reason and sense experience must work together: cognitive apprehension and some sort of rational ordering of sense perception. Asking which is more reliable, sense experience or reason, is useless, a false dichotomy. Knowledge arises from both. Maybe the Pragmatists have the best solution: if whatever we call knowledge works to solve a problem, then that is knowledge, at least provisionally. The process (knowledge is the result of a process, and subject to revision by that same process) starts with a dilemma or some cognitive dissonance about something, or maybe something as simple as an interest. We articulate the problem, formulate an hypothesis to test a solution to or explanation of the problem, conduct experiments to test the hypothesis, repeat if necessary, and come to some conclusion. That, says Dewey, is knowledge: a process of solving problems. The explanations are warranted as long as they work. But Kant still lingers in the background. To arrive at hypotheses, design experiments, and draw conclusions based on results, the knower must think it through, using something like Kant’s categories. Two crucial concepts (Kant doesn’t call them that, but I will for the time being) are those of space and time, which Kant insists precede the possibility of having any sense experience at all. These allow a knower to distinguish between this object as one chair seen at different times, or many identical chairs seen at the same time in different spaces. This makes sense to me. Kant calls space and time “pure intuitions.” The categories, a way of ordering our experience, he believes are derived rationally. The other source of knowledge is what Kant calls “empirical intuition,” in other words, sense experience. Sense experience, understood and ordered by space, time, and the categories, constitutes knowledge.
Recently I heard a scientist considering the ramifications of string theory on the radio. This person recognized that humans’ sense of space and time is conditioned by the human experience of living, but that string theory may require concepts of a different kind of space and time. So be it. We are humans. If we need to formulate a sense of space and time that works in some universe of experience to explain certain phenomena, that is what we do. If another concept works in another realm, that is what we do. If we can design experiments to test string theory and develop a new, perhaps technical sense of space and time for explanation in that realm of experience, that is what we do. We have to use something like Kant’s rationally understood categories and empirically experienced sense perception. How certain can people be of their conclusions? Well, either we are approaching a more reliable understanding of nature though science, or we are simply changing our understanding of nature. I prefer to believe the latter, although the former may sometimes be the case. Human beings do have the capacity to be wrong, alas, and even to persist in their wrong-headedness for other than scientific reasons.
The genetic epistemology of Piaget must be added to Kant’s epistemology. The ability to reason according to Kant’s categories (or any others) is acquired by children through time and experience. It does not simply reside in the child as a potential, but develops through the manipulation and accumulation of sense experience; more precisely, it develops through activity, or, more precisely still, though the interaction of the child’s presently operative schemata (to use Piaget’s word for concepts) with the child’s present sense experience. Knowledge is adaptive, under Piaget’s biologically influenced analysis, as it is under the pragmatist’s analysis. It works to solve problems. This is a second crucial element of my philosophy of education: that the recipient of an education must somehow make it his or her own through activity; knowledge arises in the intersection between sense experience and explanations of sense experience. Otherwise “knowledge” is simply a parroting of what other people have claimed it to be. To this Vygotsky adds that conceptual knowledge is culturally and socially conditioned by the child’s surroundings, including his or her “more competent peers.” Clearly, different experiences contribute different elements. From this, postmodernism arrives on the scene. Things that people regard as a rationally or conceptually true are conditioned by the culture in which they live and the experiences it affords them. Ideas and experiences differed profoundly for the residents of the Belgian Congo and King Leopold II, who held the Congo as if it were his personal possession in the late 19th century, with disastrous results in both the long and the short term for the indigenous people. The insight that knowledge is conditioned by experience has profound implications both for the present and future history of that region, or any other affected by colonialism, and for epistemology itself. Kant’s Copernican turn in philosophy—his insistence that we can only know things as they appear to us (the phenomena) and never as things-in-themselves (the noumena)—foreshadows the conclusions of our times: that knowledge is not absolute, but relative to a person, place and time, conditioned by our experience. This occasions much of modern philosophy, starting with phenomenology and existentialism. If it is the phenomena we can know, phenomenologists focus individual experience, not the noumena. People will do better to pay attention to how the world appears to them than to concepts that might have no relation to any experience. This leads to the postmodernists’ emphasis on the situatedness of knowledge. Yet, despite all these emendations and additions to Kant’s epistemology (and many more that I have not explored here), it appears to me that there are some logical categories that are universal: it is possible to distinguish among unity, plurality, and totality (Kant’s category of quantity, causation, inherence, and reciprocity (Kant’s category of relation), reality, negation and limitation (Kant’s category of quality). A thing cannot both exist and not exist, it cannot be both possible and impossible, and if it is necessary, it cannot be contingent, or the reverse (Kant’s category of modality).
Now the question arises as to whether this analysis applies to matters other than science—for instance, interpretation of literature, the writing of poetry, the appreciation of music, the understanding of history, and in general the humanities. Certainly some elements of it do, for instance the situatedness of knowledge about such topics. Is clear that our understanding of history varies depending upon who we are and what experiences we’ve had. This even varies within a particular culture and depending on the political outlook or experiences of various knowers. Yet some sorts of things can be shared in common among interpreters of literature, such as the classification of figurative language for instance, or the construction of meter in poetry, whereas other things may be quite idiosyncratic, such as an individual’s response to a particular work based on his or her experiences and interests of a personal nature. Clearly it is very instructive for teachers of such matters to be aware of that, although their interpretation may be helpful to young students, knowing requires that the students formulate their own interpretations and opinions concerning such matters, which need, of course, to be supported in some way with evidence from a text, taking text in a broad sense. Although we may not be very good yet (or again) at doing this in grade school or high school, obviously we have been doing this is college for at least the second half of the 20th century. The current testing craze in public schools is unfortunate in that it precludes teaching that acknowledges the variability of “knowledge,” the necessity for interaction, and the need to provide a broad array of sense experience from which students construct understandings, in favor of a narrow construction designed to improve test scores on certain supposedly objective, state-mandated examinations. Hopefully we will soon return to a better notion of accountability that will allow us to plan curriculum more beneficial to the development of children’s own ability to think than is currently the case. Knowledge that is easily tested on state-mandated exams will almost always be reproductive rather than transformational. That is the third element of my theory of knowledge — that human beings seek knowledge in order to improve their lives through education. “Improvement” requires that knowledge be transformation rather than reproductive. Otherwise, we could rely on simply transmitting what we already “know” to children, rather than creating thinkers and seekers of new understandings.
In ethics, likewise, a philosophy of education faces some complicated problems. Again, it would be nice simply to quote someone like Aristotle whose ethics admonishes people to train children always to choose the mean rather than the excess or deficiency of any virtue, or John Stuart Mill, whose ethics admonishes us to accomplish “ the greatest good for the greatest number” through utilitarianism. Or it would comforting if the psychology of Kohlberg could show us how to devise programs by which children would reach the highest of level of moral development through the telling of moral dilemmas. But again, such simple solutions do not suffice, although they may contribute elements to an ethics useful in education. It does indeed seem to be evident that children are driven, initially, as Skinner describes, mostly by conditioning. The infant’s cries bring relief to its distress, so it cries again. Good work occasions praise, so the child repeats the task with pleasure. As the Epicureans pointed out long ago, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain motivate people. But there appears to be something beyond this, some sense of right and wrong, some balance between merely seeking one’s own pleasure or avoiding one’s own pain and accomplishing something outside of oneself or even benefiting others. We have also moved beyond Plato’s notion that justice consists of occupying one’s predetermined place in the state and fulfilling one’s duty. Duties have been laid upon children from time immemorial, but it’s clear that what is construed as duty has changed (ahh…postmodernism…). A “duty ethic” will always be subject to revision (Bennett and his ilk will become outmoded…).
Another possibility is a naturalistic ethics like Dewey’s. We often appeal to such an ethic in reasoning with children. The story of the Boy Who cried Wolf naturalizes the principal of truth telling. It is not in the boy’s best interest to cry wolf unnecessarily. Although this is a good appeal to children at an early stage of moral development, it doesn’t lead to a principled morality. But the question remains — what are the principles of such a principled morality, and can children comprehend them? Personally, again, I like Kant’s ethics, in part for its economy. The categorical imperative adapts to many situations. In its first formulation it commands us to “always to act as though the maxim of our action could be willed by us to become like a universal law of nature.” That is, we must ask whether we could universalize the maxim of whenever action we might be contemplating. For instance, I am late. Is it all right for me to speed just this one time so that I will not be reprimanded? I must ask if I can universalize the maxim of my action. Is it all right with me for everyone to speed when they are late? Since the answer is clearly no, I cannot allow myself to speed. The Categorical Imperative in its second formulation commands us to “always to treat other people as ends in themselves, never as a means to our own ends.” This is very like the Gold Rule of the Bible, but not subject to the five year-old misinterpretation, “It’s OK to hit him because I don’t care if he hits me back.” (Following the Categorical Imperative might also preclude pre-emptive war.) The third formulation is also appealing, “ Always act as if you were a member of a kingdom of ends.” Kant formulated a workable plan for obtaining Perpetual Peace in his essay of the same name, in which he advises founding a League of Nations in order to establish such a kingdom of ends.
So much for principles, but still, questions usually arise. Enunciating principles doesn’t insure that they will be acted upon, or that the results will be desirable. But what other choices do we have? To pursue our own pleasures? To attempt to attain our own concept of utility? Or simply to do what we want? Even Sartre, for whom “mankind is condemned to be free” is forced to declare that “when we act, we act for all mankind.” Kant’s explanation is that human beings sometimes act on their inclinations, which are concerned with their own benefit. We act on these in following the hypothetical (that is, not required) imperatives of daily life. If I am hungry, I eat. If I want to lose weight, I eat less. I can choose. But we also have principles that require us to obey them in our actions that regard other people. This, of course, entails that we recognize the Categorical Imperative, which rational beings can do, according to Kant. Although children’s understanding of such principles is developmental, and requires Piagetian reciprocity to take another’s perspective, as they grow older they can and do understand a rationale other than their own personal benefit for behaving in an ethical way. This rationale can appeal to a sense of fairness or justice, if the proper groundwork be laid for such an appeal by education. In a democracy that purports that “all men are created equal,” or better, that “all men and women are created equal,” it is certainly desirable to promote a principled morality based on equality.
Once a concept of justice is established, it may be possible for me to explain the concept of social justice, which clearly ought to underline public education in a democracy. Unfortunately we don’t do this well in our public educational systems in the United States. Inequitable resources and differential of outcomes are the rule; as Kozol puts it in his recent book, our apartheid educational system is The Shame of the Nation. Yet it seems abundantly clear that any society that calls itself a democracy and reportedly practices the principal of “ one person one vote,” ought to guaranteed people’s preparation for exercising the franchise by a public educational system that does not tolerate differential outcomes from inadequate or inequitable resources fro children from different social or economic backgrounds. That the public educational systems of the United States are vastly unequal is not disputed by anyone. The problem is not enunciation of the principle (although we still say “All men are created equal” and have failed to pass an Equal Rights Amendment), but the lack of a political will to remedy these inequities, compounded by the difficulty that the inequities are more deeply rooted than perhaps public education can itself remedy by itself. Although the problem is complex, it is nevertheless soluble. Human beings created it; human beings can remedy it.
In fact we know many of the things that we need to do in public schools in order to create better outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. One of them is simply equitable funding. Others are universal health care, adequate nutrition for all children, universal early childhood education (but not along demeaning lines…), small class sizes (especially in the elementary grades), an empowering curriculum for all children, and many other simple elements of a fair educational system. We can also see to it that our society practices some of the values that it preaches, such as, enforcing the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Law, raising the minimum wage to a livable wage, preventing environmental toxins that damage children, and changing our reliance on incarceration as a tool for creating a safe and livable environment for everyone. Better wages would help create socially just conditions for everyone, decent low-income housing would help, eliminating lead poisoning would help, full employment would help, youth programs in urban areas would help, gun control laws would help, and many other things that we seem to be politically incapable of instituting on any large scale. John Rawls suggests that planners should operate under a “veil of ignorance,” planning institutions in which they would not know what position they themselves would occupy. The result would be a socially just society. Clearly social justice requires that children not be blamed for situations beyond their control (and, by the way, often beyond the control of their parents) but that such situations be remedied by a society, which is certainly affluent enough to make the most of its most precious resource, its children.
I believe that some day soon, the dream of a socially just society, which was also Martin Luther King’s dream, will become a reality. A desire to do the right thing will elucidate the many ways to begin. Furthermore, having a socially just society is not only the ethically right thing to do but also the prudentially good thing to do. Still, in the United States, we don’t do it, which I find as incomprehensible as Kozol did (and many others), writing his many books that put a human face on the suffering he found in a profoundly socially unjust society. If education succeeds in making citizens who are morally astute and politically engaged, this will change. Consequently, in my philosophy of education, we must always be aware of the ultimate ends for which we establish an educational system. These should drive the means. The ends of an educational system include educating future citizens who want to live in a socially just society and who are able to establish it. I cannot believe that such a society would destroy our “competitive edge” economically (often the argument against a livable wage), which is rapidly destroying itself anyway. I cannot help but believe that such a socially just society would be a model of a true democracy and be economically viable. As such, it would create goodwill worldwide, rather than hatred of “our way of life.” We say our way of life is exemplary because it is democratic; others see it as self-seeking, conspicuous consumption for the “haves” and deprivation for the “have-nots.” I believe that social justice needs to be global and that citizens of the world could work together to attain a socially just global society. Thus the final element of my philosophy of education is that education must result in citizens who desire and can create a socially just society for themselves and others. As Dewey says, true educators must desire for every child what every parent desires for his or her own child. This means desiring a socially just education for children everywhere, not only for our own children in the United States, although we could start by creating a socially just society here. Kant’s kingdom of ends, in other words, will be realized, I hope, in the 21st century, through a global society dedicated to improving the lives of children though education.
August 21, 2006
Jane Fowler Morse
Professor of Education, Ella Cline Shear School of Education