Philosophy of Education: Its Current Trajectory and Challenges
Philosophy of education is a domain of philosophical inquiry into the nature and aims of education; the diverse normative dimensions of education; the aspects of learning, teaching, and curricula; and the character and structure of educational theory and its own place in that theory. It seeks understanding of educational matters and to provide practical guidance for educational practice and policy. Throughout its history, philosophy of education has been shaped by related philosophical developments and by contemporaneous educational, social, economic, and political circumstances. Over the past half century, it has also come to exhibit features associated with its professionalization as a research specialization.
What we know of the origins of philosophy of education in the West suggests that it began in Greek Antiquity in the pedagogical claims and counterclaims of the adult educators we now know as philosophers, orators, and sophists (all of whom claimed the title “philosopher” in their time) and in debates about the role of slave pedagogues, the invention of group lessons for children, and the virtues and limitations of Spartan education. In the aftermath of the Peloponnesian Wars, the philosopher-moralists of Athens called for systematic investments in education, and they explored related questions about justice, virtue, happiness, human development, civic friendship, political stability, the relationships between education and law, and the tools of statesmanship.
So it was that in the works of Plato and Aristotle, many of the perennial problems of philosophy of education were framed: What is education? How does it contribute to human well-being or flourishing? To what extent, and by what means, can the aim of educating children for their own good be reconciled with educating them for the common good? How can education contribute to civic unity? Should education be the same for everyone? Should education be a matter of individual parental choice or publicly controlled? Through what forms of learning and instruction are virtues of character and intellect acquired? How does rationality develop, and what role does instruction play in that development? To what extent and by what means can education “emancipate” human beings or enhance their freedom? What is knowledge and how is it acquired? Can understanding and knowledge be transmitted through teaching? How are methods of inquiry and methods of instruction related to one another? What is the role of the arts in education? What role do practical arts and the development of talents play in a “liberal” education? How are education and work related to one another?
Other questions of enduring interest got their footing in the early modern period, in the midst of the scientific revolution and the seemingly endless religious persecution and wars of the Reformation. Philosophers, from René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes to John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, were occupied with understanding the new science, reconciling it with religious faith and moral knowledge, and rethinking the relationships between church, State, and moral formation: What must be learned through experience to be understood? To what extent is learning through inquiry or discovery feasible? To what extent can education rely on “natural” learning, motivated by curiosity? Should societies forgo the imposition of a State religion and trust the spontaneous activity of human reason to impart the moral prerequisites of good citizenship? In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the industrial revolution, growth of mass schooling, new-found respectability of democracy, and consolidation of the modern system of the arts and aesthetics cast new light on enduring questions of philosophy of education and prompted some new ones: Is mass schooling desirable? Is it compatible with cultural excellence? Should all students receive the same education? What is the relationship between education and labor? How is education related to socioeconomic status and opportunity?
The history of philosophical inquiry concerning education reveals an occupation with the nature, aims, and means of education, with philosophical aspects of teaching and learning, and with matters of educational authority, responsibility, equity, and entitlement. Through most of this history, philosophical inquiry concerning education rarely announced itself as philosophy of education, no one made a living as a philosopher of education, and no societies or journals of philosophy of education had yet been founded. All of this began to change in the middle of the twentieth century. Philosophy of education constituted itself as a profession employed primarily in faculties of education and as a scholarly enterprise straddling education and philosophy. Journals and societies were founded, a handful of institutions established Ph.D. programs in philosophy of education, and the prestige of research stimulated a growing stream of publications, much as it did in other academic domains. As its professional advancement has progressed, philosophy of education has come to exhibit traits associated with the rising costs and diminishing returns on research in a field’s established core. One consequence of this is that the nature and limits of philosophy of education are now harder to identify.
Professionalization, Fragmentation, and Strategies of Renewal
Judging from what is presented and published under the aegis of the philosophy of education societies of Australasia, Great Britain, and North America, philosophy of education is exploding in so many directions away from its historic core that one may wonder whether it is simply disintegrating. It seems intent on leaving no far-flung theoretical stone unturned, on what often appears the merest supposition that so important a theory would naturally have some educational implications. To write about Derrida or Dualism, Wittgenstein or Whiteness, or Levinas or Inferentialism may be thought so obviously rich in practical implications that education need not be mentioned at all. Are these exploding fragments of a field meaningfully tethered to enduring central questions about education? If so, is there a body of ongoing inquiry into those central questions that informs the diverse fragments?
Similar concerns have been expressed about other philosophical subfields in recent decades. Philosophers of law have asked whether their own field, once so plainly defined by a cluster of conceptual and normative questions about the nature and boundaries of law, authority, obligation, responsibility, and liberty, has come to a standstill. Philosophers of science, once similarly focused on the nature of science and logic of scientific laws, explanation, evidence, and theory, have also worried about the fragmentation of their field and the extent to which its far-flung parts are not informed by work on the fundamental questions. All three fields, all of them philosophies of domains of norm-governed human endeavor, have exhibited dramatic out-migration from their centers. As fields of inquiry, law and education have looked beyond themselves for periodic intellectual renewal, and philosophy of law and philosophy of education have followed suit. Yet the patterns of out-migration have been very different. Philosophy of law has advanced and critiqued feminist, neo-Marxist, economic, humanistic, and semiotic analyses of core aspects of law while moving beyond the field’s defining core to investigate diverse, specific legal rules, procedures, and principles. The explosion away from the core has been characterized by detailed engagement with puzzling and controversial features of legal systems and developments pertaining to them, relying on intimate knowledge of law and framed in terms accessible to legal scholars and practitioners who are not philosophers. Aspirations to shape practice are not misplaced. The movement away from the core of philosophy of science has followed a similar pattern to the extent it has occupied itself substantially with what is distinctive in different sciences – their distinctive ontological puzzles and modes of inquiry, confirmation, and explanation. The occupation with one or another diverse science has diminished communication between philosophers of science and collective memory of work in the field’s core that could usefully inform their work. With these drawbacks of abandoning the core having been recognized and discussed, there has been a significant renaissance of work on the field’s central topics in recent years.
Why should these patterns recur across diverse fields of inquiry? There is a dynamic of diminishing marginal returns on investment that explains it (Tainter 1988, 111 ff.). As a field constitutes itself as a self-governing professional enterprise, it will begin by addressing the most basic and important problems in its domain, a domain defined by its object of study. It will address the nature of the objects in the domain, their properties, and their variety and relationships to one another. If the domain is one of human practice, it will not only seek understanding but will identify norms of success and provide guidance on achieving success. Only by starting in this way is a field likely to attract interest and establish the external and internal legitimacy a profession requires. External legitimacy is predicated on a promise of value to the host sociopolitical system, and internal legitimacy is predicated on intrinsic intellectual rewards and socioeconomic return on energy invested in acquiring professional expertise. The pioneers of fields of inquiry establish the starting points of such legitimacy by demonstrating the success of their methods in producing model solutions to fundamental problems. The course of subsequent work within that research paradigm will follow a predictable path. Improvements in the answers to the most basic questions will be increasingly difficult to obtain, as energy invested in mastering increasingly complex debates and methods yields smaller and smaller refinements. Marginal return on investment in further research on the field’s defining questions will decline, and this will yield incentives to (1) work on relatively unexplored but increasingly peripheral problems and (2) search outside the field’s established parameters for new sources of intellectual “energy” or new research paradigms.
Both strategies for preserving an acceptable return on investment in research are themselves subject to declining marginal returns, but the former is more reliably conducive to maintaining the legitimacy of a professionalized field of inquiry. As the examples of medicine, law, and other fields demonstrate, progress on peripheral problems can be conducive to both external legitimacy and internal legitimacy in the form of intellectual gratification and feasible career paths. Prospecting for transformative theoretical paradigms is more adventuresome. In philosophy of education, literary studies, and some related fields, it also often trades on a status hierarchy that honors abstraction. But it is a strategy analogous to prospecting for gold or prospecting for petroleum at a point when energy return on energy invested in petroleum exploration and development is in sharp decline.
In order to flourish in the years ahead, philosophy of education must recommit itself to its central problems and find the patience and resourcefulness to do philosophically sound and interesting work on fundamental and controversial aspects of education. Only in this way can it replenish itself with talent, bolster its legitimacy, and set itself on a trajectory of accumulating success. In developing its periphery, it would do well to observe the norms of counterpart domains of practical philosophy, such as philosophy of law and biomedical ethics – norms that counsel normative clarity and serious engagement with what can be learned of the institutional and human realities in one’s domain of inquiry.
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