Philosophy of Education, Ethical and Political Issues in

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Education is the promotion of learning and development. Educational activities include attending to explanations, lectures, or demonstrations, but it does not follow that teaching or direct instruction is the whole or the essence of education. Education also involves the communication of care and the transmission of elements of at least one culture, but these, too, are only part of what constitutes education. Additionally, education is a form of governance; to educate has always meant "to rear, bring up, instruct, train, discipline, develop," but its Latin root, ēducāre, is related to ēducěre (from ē, "out," and dūcěre, "to lead"), a term of governance. The terms pedagogy and pedagogue (schoolteacher) derive similarly from the Greek paidagôgos, a term of governance (from paidion, "child," and agô, "to lead") referring to the household slave who supervised the children and led them out into the city from one teacher and place of learning to another. The modern term governess, signifying a woman employed to educate the children of a household, is similarly and conspicuously a term of governance.

As a form of governance, education requires justification, and it entails responsibilities, aims, a manner of going about its business, and substance or a communicated content. These are the fundamental aspects of governance, and the philosophy of education can be organized by categories corresponding to them: the authority to educate (justification), the adequate and equitable provision of education (responsibilities), the aims of education (aims), pedagogy and educational ethics (manner), and curriculum (substance or content).

On this account of the divisions of philosophy of education, it becomes evident that an ethic of governance would provide a unifying normative structure. The most obvious and durable illustration of this is an ethic of respsect for persons as self-determining agents. Ethics of this kind have dominated philosophy from the time of Socrates, and they have implications for each of the five named aspects of governance and for each of the five corresponding divisions of philosophy of education. The primary aim and responsibility of educators is to promote autonomy or effective self-determination, and to do so equitably, displaying equal respect within their sphere of educational authority. The scope of the educational authority they possess, the manner in which they exercise that authority, and the content of the education they provide will in turn be limited and shaped by the character of this responsibility. They endeavor to cultivate the intellectual and moral virtues essential to good judgment, to nurture capabilities that will provide the basis of lives worth living, and to enable each student to understand the circumstances of his or her own life and the possibilities that lie before him or her. While promoting autonomy or effective self-determination in such ways, educators teach in a manner respectful of their students and the values inherent in the subjects they teach.

An influential alternative to such an ethic of respect is the ethic of care championed by Nel Noddings (1992) and others. Considered as an ethic of education, it assigns great importance to caring for students. It proposes the development of caring in students as the central purpose or aim of education and sets forth a conception of curriculum based not on the diverse forms of disciplinary knowledge but on the diverse forms of human developmental potentials and diverse "centers of care" or objects of potential interest and devoted attachment. Advocates of this view are less clear about its implications for matters of educational justice and authority, but in addressing the latter, they begin from the presumption that care and control are incompatible. They concede that an ethic of care does not constitute a comprehensive moral point of view, but the debate, which originated not in moral theory but in the psychology of moral development, has been framed as an opposition and subsequent reconciliation between justice and care.

An alternative would be to hold that the literature of care offers not a competing ethic or ethical theory, but a cluster of important empirical observations about the fundamental place in human development and well-being of being cared for, coming to care about and for oneself, and forming attachments. These tenets have been acknowledged by liberal theorists who regard a deontological ethic of respect as morally fundamental. Examples include the attention to continuity and quality of relationships in schools in the work of Randall Curren (2000, 2003) and conceptions of teaching and the curriculum as providing potential objects of attachment and fulfillment, as discussed in the work of Kenneth Strike (2003) and Harry Brighouse (2005).

Within the educational framework established by an ethical-political orientation, there are roles to be played by guiding norms of other sorts, such as epistemic rationality, craftsmanship, and artistry. If self-determination is enhanced by knowledge and understanding, then curricula must communicate, and teachers display respect for, the epistemic norms pertaining to knowledge and understanding. If the promotion of autonomy or meaningful choice among satisfying lives requires that students have opportunities to experience and develop competence in pursuits that are fulfilling and allow them to make their way in the world, then curricula must communicate, and teachers display respect for, the norms of craft and artistry proper to such pursuits.

Attempts have been made to undermine the distinction between epistemic and moral-political norms that is assumed here. Postmodernists and some varieties of feminists and neo-Marxists hold that the norms of epistemic rationality, at least in their familiar forms, are aspects of systems of oppression and have no objective standing. Such views have had many defenders within the philosophy of education in recent years, but the moral principles they appear to rely on are no more radical than those of the dominant liberal-democratic tradition, which has itself always been at least latently egalitarian. What distinguishes these contemporary critical stances is the assumptions of fact they employ, their salutary attention to previously neglected forms of inequality and disrespect, andmore problematicallytheir epistemic and metaphysical doctrines.

Although many of the ethical and political issues in philosophy of education were addressed by R. S. Peters and others in, and opposed to, the analytical philosophy of education movement of the 1960s and 1970s, philosophical exploration of them has become more common since the 1980s. This growth of interest in such issues includes debates about parental choice in schooling, public support for religious schools, moral education, inclusion of students with disabilities in regular classrooms, accountability and high-stakes testing, affirmative action in university admissions, and the limits of academic freedom.

Educational Authority

The question of how to apportion authority over education between parents and public authorities has become important since the early 1980s, as parents in the United States have challenged public school curricula and have increasingly chosen home schooling, usually on religious grounds. What role should parental wishes and rights play in determining the content of public education? When it comes to regulating private, religious, and home schooling, how are parents' interests in the faith and character of their children to be balanced against the protection of children's interests and the need to prepare them for citizenship in a multicultural society? Is it acceptable to exempt religious schools from laws that protect girls and women from discrimination on the basis of sex?

William Galston and other defenders of wide parental discretion argue that parents can be trusted more than government authorities to know and protect their children's interests, that parents have a strong and legitimate interest in transmitting their values to their children, and that it is in the interest of children to be educated in the "thick" cultural traditions that faith communities can provide but that public institutions constrained by requirements of neutrality cannot. James Dwyer (1998) and others have argued in response that it is incoherent to attribute to parents an individual liberty that entails a right to control or predetermine the life course of another person, even a child. Amy Gutmann (1987), Eamonn Callan (1997), Stephen Macedo (2000, 2002), and others have argued that respect for reasonable pluralism cannot be secured by unlimited accommodation of the wishes of parents whose own cultural communities are intolerant. Civic virtues of respectful and reasoned engagement with the views and values of others must be educationally nurtured if a political culture of tolerance and mutual respect is to survive, and it follows from this that educational policy must favor, if not absolutely insist upon, universal standards of civic education. Dwyer, Brighouse, Meira Levinson (1999) and others argue that liberal respect for children as persons in their own right requires policies that ensure that all children enjoy an education that introduces them to a variety of cultural and ethical traditions and enables them to think critically about the circumstances and conduct of their own lives.

A related debate over school choice and privatization has taken on significance as schemes to promote parental choice among schools (for example, providing government vouchers redeemable for all or part of tuition) have spread to many parts of the world. Defenders of such schemes have argued that they are necessary to eliminate the differential impact of ability to pay on the freedom of parents to practice their religions, but also that a free market in educational services would promote efficiency and superior educational results. The debate is fraught with empirical speculation on all sides, but Colin Crouch (2003) has made a strong case for the view that privatization would abandon the idea that education is a right of citizenship, and others have addressed the ethical and political principles involved in ways that set the empirical issues aside. Curren has examined the grounds on which a public system of schools might be considered necessary, and he and Brighouse have arrived at similar requirements of justice for any system of education to be deemed acceptable (Curren 2000, Brighouse 2000). Both argue that some choice schemes might satisfy those requirements, that responsibility lies with the state to ensure that those requirements are met, and that public authority over education must be retained at least to the extent necessary to fulfill that responsibility.

A third debate concerns the professional authority of educators themselves. The authority to teach is typically granted through processes of certification and selective employment. But once teachers are employed, by what means are they, schools, and those who supervise them to be held accountable for their performance? Debate has focused on the promise and perils of high-stakes testing as a mechanism of accountability, and there is clearly much of ethical significance at stake. To what extent do extensive testing regimes undermine student motivation to learn? To what extent do they limit the exercise of sound professional judgment and thereby undermine good teaching?

Educational Responsibilities

How are educational adequacy and equity to be understood? One debate concerns the kind of educational equality to be achieved and the degree to which equality is a requirement of justice. The major divide has been between those who argue that schooling is to be distributed so as to promote equality of opportunity to live well and those who defend one or another threshold of educational adequacy. Best known among the latter views is Gutmann's argument that in order for the rights of citizenship to be meaningful, every citizen must be provided an education sufficient to make possible effective participation in democratic processes (Gutmann 1987).

Another area of lively debate concerns the diversity of students served by schools. The main topics have been religious diversity and the free exercise of religion, gender equity, racial justice and antiracist education, the rights of linguistic minorities, and justice for students with disabilities.

As regards higher education, the focus has been on access or who gains admission. The issue of whether the use of standardized admissions tests such as the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) is racially discriminatory has been examined in detail by Robert Fullinwider and Judith Lichtenberg (2004), and countless philosophers have contributed to the debate over the merits of affirmative action in admissions as a way to promote racial and gender equity.

All such views are dismissed as insufficiently transformative, socially and politically, by Paulo Freire and other advocates of revolutionary pedagogies. Because they view the content of conventional schooling as inherently exclusionary and oppressive in ways that sustain unjust regimes, they hold that justice demands forms of teaching that liberate oppressed populations by promoting critical consciousness and action.

Educational Aims

Does the aim of educating children for their own good conflict with the aim of educating them for the common good? Is the point of transmitting culture to sustain the culture, to benefit the child, or both? Is the point of civic education to stabilize governments that may be corrupt, to prepare citizens to be vigilant in discouraging government corruption, or both? Is the point of education to promote a thriving economy, to enable the child to earn a living, or both? For example, if the economy needs more engineers, how far can schools go in developing the required science curriculum in a preprofessional direction without violating the spirit of a "general" education? What makes the potential for conflict more than conjectural is the existence of other models of the science curriculum. Instruction in science might aim for a broad humanistic and historical understanding of science or an appreciation of the relationships between science, technology, and society; and such aims would not require the emphasis on mastery of equations and their application that is characteristic of preprofessional instruction.

The hope of reconciling education's worthy aims has rested largely with the enterprise of identifying a highest aim. The dominant choice through much of the Western tradition has been fostering good judgment in matters both public and private; but the dominant choice in recent decades has been autonomy. Although its meaning is often not well defined, autonomy seems to signify much the same thing as practically applied good judgment. The coherence and adequacy of the concept of autonomy have been questioned, usually on the grounds that it ignores the social context of personal identity, choice, and efficacy. Defenders of autonomy argue that the metaphysical assumptions of autonomy are not what critics suppose.

Pedagogy, Discipline, and the Ethics of Teaching

The landscape of pedagogy has been dominated by different versions of the contrast between pedagogies of content delivery and pedagogies of critical thinking, some more politically charged than others. Friere frames this as a contrast between the "banking" and "problem solving" models, others as a contrast between transmission and construction(ism), and still others as a contrast between teaching that does or does not promote active learning and critical thinking. Defenders of problem solving, constructionist, and critical-thinking pedagogies all offer ethical and emancipatory rationales.

The matter of how coercive classroom management should be has been discussed in connection with pedagogy, classroom dialogue, and theories of motivation and basic psychological needs. A key issue is whether the organization of work and social life in the classroom creates the opportunities for all students to satisfy their basic psychological needs in acceptable ways. If it does, then problems of classroom management will be small, and if it does not, then it will be both more necessary and less just to penalize unwanted conduct.

While most work on the ethics of teaching addresses specific issues, Strike (2003) offers a general account that incorporates ideals of promoting growth, exemplifying civic virtues, and teaching one's subject with integrity or in a way that is true to its inherent virtues. Work on the ethics of higher education has addressed issues of academic freedom, tenure, institutional neutrality, university-business partnerships, sexual harassment, diversity, research ethics, ethical issues in student-life policies, athletics, and the professional responsibilities of faculty and administrators.

The Substance of Schooling

Discussion of the content of education has often taken the idea of an education in the liberal arts as its point of departure, and multicultural calls to broaden the "canon" or textual basis of liberal education have proliferated. The purpose of a multicultural curriculum is variously described as providing a more accurate view of the world, promoting the self-esteem of those not born into the culturally dominant class or race, correcting the self-perceptions of those who do belong to the dominant class or race, or promoting intercultural or interracial understanding, harmony, mutual respect, or global citizenship. A more radical strand of critique, advanced by Walter Feinberg (1983) and others, holds that the function of schooling is to reproduce social and economic inequality and that school curricula are systems of exclusionary knowledge codes, which mediate that function.

In recent years the major debates about moral education have revolved around three kinds of models and how to move beyond them. Cultural-transmission models call for initiating children into the prevailing moral order by immersing them in a school culture that replicates and teaches it through rituals, moralistic literature, and the like. These models are faulted primarily for their lack of progressivism. Romantic or child liberationist models trust children to spontaneously develop moral sensibilities and commitments but are faulted for their empirical shortcomings. Intellectualist or neo-Kantian models have attempted to sidestep debates over the content of morality and moral education by focusing on the form of morality and moral reasoning. Lawrence Kohlberg's cognitive-developmental variant of this model has been widely influential and widely criticized for ignoring the motivational aspect of moral development and for promoting an ethic of justice that is at odds with the patterns of female moral development, which are said to pertain more to care and inclusion. Alternative models include an ethics of care that emphasizes the nurturing of natural sympathy, neo-Aristotelian approaches that defend roles for both habituation and critical reason, and mixed developmental approaches that consider the moral sentiments, social and community factors, and identity formation together with the cognitive aspects of moral development.

See also Affirmative Action; Authority; Ethics, History of; Feminist Epistemology; Multiculturalism; Philosophy of Education, History of; Rationality; Respect; Socrates.


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