ls Education a
ever be a discipline? This question has been vigorously
ducation is undeniably a prolession, but is it now or could it
debated in the past, and it is equally controversial today.
Ùiln two recent issues of The Educational Forum, Harry S. Broudy
and Frederick F. Rltsch state that education is a discipline,
though not a standard academic discipline. ‘ But in another arti-
cle, James R. Miller and Jon l. Young emphasize that education is
lt is apparent that, to survlve, educators must
recognize and accept the fact thai there is no
discipline of education. Rather, colleges of educa-
tion are professional schools. Only through the
identification and validation of sound praclices
that promote learning wiIl teacher education be
able to survive in higher education and fullill its
responsibilities to society. ’
Admittedly the view thai education is a prolession rather
than a discipline is widely held, as is the view that education and
other nondisciplines differ in some way or other from the
established disciplines, such as physics, philosophy, and
sociology. Bui exactly how do nondisciplines differ from
disciplines? What are the distinctive characteristics of
disciplines that education supposedly lacks? Are there compell-
ing arguments lo support the view that education is a non-
Jeanne P/ el/ g I's assismn! pro/ esser, School o! Education, Universiry o! Virginia,
CharIoItesvi/ Ie, Virginia.
discipline? l propose that we attempt lo answer these question;
by finding out precisely what it is that makes a discipline a
ln order to make sense of the question “What is a
discipline? " we need to ask, “What are the distinctive features o;
disciplines that clearly distinguish disciplines from non.
disciplines? " A satisiactory definition of discipline should pro.
vide us with criteria ior differentiating fields such as physics and
sociology from fields such as home economics and anima]
husbandry, ior these are fields of study whose status als
disciplines or nondisciplines is generally unquestioned. One way
oi testing the adequacy of the criteria used to identliy
disciplines, then, ls to apply the same criteria to recognized non.
disciplines. Soltis uses this analytic technique to evaluate the
t. A discipline is a body of subject matter that is
2. A discipline is inquiry that is abstract and
theoretical; it is not practical.
3. A discipline is characterized by a unique,
organized, and open-ended body of knowledge;
a nondiscipline is characterized by a non-
unique potpourri oi settled subject matter.
4. A discipline is a field of study that possesses a
unique methodology for obtaining and organiz-
ing knowledge. ’ ,
The criterion oi teachability in the tirst definition will not do,
because it applies to a wide range of subjects, including
automotive mechanics. Clearly, teachability is not a distinctive»
feature of disciplines. The characteristics oi abstraction and
theory in the second definition also lack discriminating torce;
Can we assert that animal husbandry, as a field of inquiry, is total-j
ly devoid of theoretical considerations? Or can we claim that
home economics lacks abstraction? Are not the concepts budget .
and nutrition abstract? Although both home economics and’
animal husbandry are practical subjects, it would be hard i0
demonstrate that subjects like physics and sociology are wholly
lt would be most diificult to try to separate the
Ph. D. in home economics or animal husbandry
from his colleagues in physics or sociology solely
by means 01‘ noting his lack of theoretical concern
with his subject or its lack of abstract concepts. He
may very well desire a practical result from his
teaching (producing good farmers or household
managers), but this hardly sets him apart from
those who seek to produce well-trained physicists
or sociologists who can apply their skills and
knowledge in their respective vocations. ‘
soltis concedes that there may be differing degrees 01 abstrac-
tion and theorizing, but argues that these characteristics do not
glve us a keen cutting edge tor separating disciplines from non—
The third definition slmilarly fails to provide us with sultable
atandards for ldentiiying disciplines. The notion that disciplines
are open-ended bodies oi knowledge, unlike nondisciplines,
which consist oi settled subject matter, is inadequate; scholars
ln nondisciplines do not assume that everything is completely
khown about their areas of inquiry. Moreover, the third definition
lmplies that nondisciplines lack autonomy because they make
use of the iacts, laws, and theories of other branches of learning.
But autonomy or uniqueness fails to diiierentiate disciplines
from nondisciplines. History, for example, “freely uses the con-
cepts and theories of economics, sociology, and political
science, in a way not so diiierent from the use of biological,
Îphysiological, and chemical concepts in books on animal
husbandry. “ li this analogy fails to convince, consider soil
science. Although this field depends on chemistry and physics,
jso do many oi the established disciplines, such as biology,
physlology, and geology.
Soltis rejects the iourth detinition as well: methodology can-
not serve as a basis for distingulshlng disciplines from non-
disciplines. The same view is held by Walton, who argues that
disciplines do not, in iact, possess unique methods for obtaining
and organizing knowledge;
How many of the subjects now taught in colleges
and universities would qualiiy as disciplines if they
were required to have a unique organization and
method of extension? Logic, perhaps, but then
logic is dependent to some extent on language.
Mathematics, considered as one oi the purest
disciplines, borrows from logic; and all the
sciences borrow from mathematics. Perhaps
history with its chronology comes nearest to being
the one discipline that has a unique system. The
other soclal sciences employ a variety of methods
of organization and inquiry and hold a monopoly on
lt ls apparent that the four definitions examined by Soltis iail
to provide us with criteria for distinguishing disciplines from non-
disciplines. But other definitions have been proposed as well. ln
perusing the literature, l came across the following:
5. A discipline is characterized by a unique, or at
least central, concern.
6. A discipline involves a mastery 0t procedures
tor testing answers to certain types oi ques-
7. A discipline is characterized by distinctive
forms of judgment or explanation.
8. A discipline is a model or a series 0t models
that interprets the events oi nature and human
The fifth and sixth definitions are proposed by Kuethe and
Peters, who hold opposing views on the disciplinary status oif
education. According to Kuethe, education is a discipline that isy
concerned with the transmission of human knowledge from
generation to generation and with society’s involvement in mak.
ing formal provisions for the transmission to take piace. Because
the classification 0t knowledge into discrete disciplines is ar-
bitrary, and because the methods, subject matter, and concerns
of disciplines overlap, there is no reason education cannot be
studied in the same sense that physics or history are studied. ’
Peters disagrees. He points out that anthropology, psychology,
and sociology have similar concerns but differ because they ask
and try to answer quite diiterent questions about human beings.
Education is not a discipline because it lacks procedures foro
testing answers to certain types ot questions. Fiather, education
is a professional field that relies on disciplined research in order
to be efiective.
Neither Kuethe nor Peters oifers us a satisfactory definition
of discipline. Peters implies that a mastery of procedures demar-
cates disciplines from non-disciplines, but we have already seeni
methodology is not a distinctive characteristic ofﬁ
disciplines. What about Peters’ suggestion that disciplines are‘
identiiied by the types of questions they ask? Or Kuethe's asser-L
tion that disciplines are characterized by their central, perhaps
unique, concerns? These criteria also iail to separate disciplines
from nondisciplines. Mortuary science, as a field 0t instruction, y
can be identiiied by its unique concern, and many nondisciplines-
can be distinguished by their central questions. Scholars in soil
science, for example, explore the variables aiiecting crop fertili-
ty; the questions they ask set them apart from other scholars, in-
cluding biologists and geologists.
The seventh definition is proposed by Hirst, who describes
education as a distinctive theoretical pursuit rather than an V
autonomous discipline. Education, he insists, lacks the distinc-
tive forms of iudgment or explanation characteristic Of
autonomous disciplines. Although educational theory i5
distinguishable by the particular questions it seeks to answer. il
depends on many branches oi learning and cannot develOP H3
own criteria for assessing the knowledge on which it draws. ‘
Hirst's view that disciplines are characterized by distinctive
types ci judgment or explanation is problematic. Shall we cali
astrology a discipline because its forms of explanation are
distinctive? Clearly not. Distinctiveness of explanation, then, is
not a sufficlent criterion for identifying disciplines. Obviously
this is not what Hirst had in mind, so Iet us examine his ideas iur-
ther. According to Hirst, disciplines may be demarcated irom one
‘another in more than one way. History diiiers from physics
because historical explanation involves types oi judgment which
the natural sciences do not employ. Physics and chemistry, on
the other hand, share the same theoretical or logical structure
and rest firmly on empirical tests; these two differ because they
have distinguishable subject matter. At this point, we must ask
, why iields like animal husbandry, plant pathology, agronomy, and
biomedical engineering are not recognized as disciplines. These
iields also rest firmly on empirical tests. Furthermore, these
fields and their parent disciplines in the natural sciences share
the same logical structure. Although Hirst helps us to distinguish
one discipline from another discipline, he does not help us dif-
ierentiate disciplines from nondisciplines.
The last deiinition is proposed by Belth, who views
disciplines as models or series oi models that serve to explain
and interpret the events oi nature and human experience. Educa-
tion is a discipline not only because it has its own mode of in-
quiry, but also because it has a distinctive subject matter——the
act of thinking. Education studies the way in which models are
constructed, used, altered, and reconstructed. Because educa-
tion explores model-making and model-using In other
disciplines, it is the "discipline oi disciplines! “
Before we can determine whether model-making and model-
using are the distinguishing characteristics of disciplines, we
need to know exactly what models are. Belth deiines models as
constructions or inventions that serve to measure, guide, explain,
and interpret the ieatures and meanings oi the actlvities
clustered into speciiic disciplines. This definition does not help
us, but the examples provided by Belth do enlighten: models in-
clude myths, pictures, diagrams, words, sentences, and belieis.
lt is apparent that Belth’s definition lacks discriminating torce;
nondisciplines also create and use models to investigato their
subject matter. Belth's definition, like the other seven examined
in this article, fails to provide us with adequate criteria ior identi-
What are the distinctive characteristics or the unique
ieatures of disciplines? Our analysis indicates that there are
none. Why is it that we persist in describing some fields oi study
as disciplines and others as nondisciplines? Soltis contends that
it is an historical accident that some subiects are labeled
disciplines; he surmizes that we unthinkingly continue the tradi-
tion by learning to use the name discipline only ior certain sub-
jects, much as we learn to cali some clerics priests and others
mlnlsters. Because no criteria have been iound to diiierentiatg
disciplines irom nondisciplines, we may conclude that it is mean,
ingless to debate the disciplinary status oi education or any
other field oi study. The term discipline is slmply an honorific
label that has been arbitrarily accorded to some areas of lnquw
A demystiflcation of the disciplines is in order. We have jugt
seen that the distinctlon between disciplines and nondisciplines
is groundless; many other oi our cherished notions about the
academic disciplines are equally unfounded. In The Academic,
Fievo/ ulion, Jencks and Riesman dispel some oi the myths that .
surround the so-called disciplines:
A discipline is at bottom nothing more than an
adminlstratlve category. The various sub-
dlsciplines within biology or history or psychology,
for example, have only the most limited intellectual
relatlonship to one another, and the same Is true in
every other field. They are grouped together malnly
because the men worklng in them went through the
same sort of graduate program and have some
residual ieeling oi common identlty. A good deal oi
ingenulty has, lt is true, been devoted to the ra-
tionalizatlon of these traditional ad hoc ar-
rangements. Some 0t the resulting efiorts to show
that history, biology, psychology, and so iorth are
really unified fields built around certain underlying
prlnclples are quite brilliant and valuable. But then
so are some of the arguments made for regrouping
subdisclpllnes into new patterns. “
Jencks and Fiiesman question the rigidity of the disciplinary
categories into which graduate schools are characterlstically
organized. They fault existing doctoral programs, not because
they turn out nothing but specialists, but because they turn out
generalista with the same mix of speciallzed skills. There is
nothing intrinsically unrigorous about regrouping the various
sub-disciplines into new comblnations: “Reassembling parts oi
now-divided territories neither adds nor subtracts rigor, though lt
may alter the ethos or style with which problems are tackled and
neophytes socialized. " New fields oi study do run certain risks:
except in the hard sciences, new combinations of subdiscipllnes
often have a difflcult time winning academic acceptance or glv-
ing recruits a home base and a feeling of control. But these are
practical concerns rather than inherent inteliectual problems. "
it appears that those areas oi study we have grown ac-
customed to calling disciplines are essentially adminlstratlve
categories that group particular klnds of specialties together ior
more or iess historical reasons. Although American graduata
education has long revered the traditional disciplinary
categories, there is nothing sacred about these arrangements;
they are, in fact, arbitrary. This iconoclastic stance toward the
q, disclplines may disturb some academicians, but the educational
reforms outlined by Jencks and Fiiesman merit study and reflec-
tion. They should not be rejected out of hand, ln the long run, a
demystification oi the disciplines will enhance rather than
‘diminish our regard for the various fields oi study within universi-
îity settings. We will be Iess inclined to think of each “discipIine"
as a solf-contained unit, set apart from other “dlsciplines" and all
iﬂnondisciplines. ” instead, we will be predisposed to look upon
each field oi study as an administratively distinct community oi
scholars who, nevertheless, have much in common with scholars
in other fields of study.
What are the implications for education? First, in order to ac-
complish a total demystification of the disciplines, educators
i may wish to investigato the reasons ior the persistence oi the
1 discipline mystique. Does allegiance to a discipline refloct the
socializing power oi graduate programs? Does scholarly produc-
> tivity or satisfaction increase when academicians perceive
themselves to be members of a discipline? ls a discipline mysti-
que created and maintained to establish academic territorial
rights? What accounts ior the fact that some areas oi inquiry are
accorded more status than others? Whether this iine of inquiry is
frultful remains to be seen, but it may shed light on some underly-
ing psychologicai, social, and political processes in higher
Second, there should be no further need to debate whether
education is, in principio at least, a Iegltimate field of academic
inquiry. Education admittedly relies on other branches of learn-
ing, but so do other fields, such as physics, which depends heavi-
ly on mathematics. Education lacks uniiylng principles with
which to organize its subject matter, but what about philosophy
or psychology or sociology? These fields are not monolithic
enterprises; instead, they embrace diverse schools oi thought.
Education is a professional field, but we have already seen that
iields oi inquiry cannot be diiterentiatod on the basis ot their
theoretical or practical concerns. The fact that education is rarely
cailod a discipline need not bother us; the distinction between
disciplines and nondisciplines is spurious.
Third, dispelling the myths that surround the disciplines may
contribute to a better understanding of education. Ali too often,
discussions about the nature and aims ot education as a field of
inquiry are based on unwarranted assumptions about disciplines.
Those who insist that education is a discipline wish to enhance
the respectability of the field, but it seems that a demystiiication,
not an imitation, ot the disciplines is cailod for. On the other
hand, those who insist that education is nota discipline tend to
portray education as an eclectic iield that relies on disciplined
research in order to be etfective. But educators musi engage in
their own research ii their field is to advance. We need to avoid
“either-or" thinking. ln the final analysis, education is both a pro-
fession and an academic field of inquiry.
ln conclusion, our attempt to ascertain the disciplinary
status of education has raised more questions than it has i
answered. However, the inquiry has produced a new strategy;
namely, demystifying the disciplines. Dispelling the myths that
surround the so-called disciplines may open new avenuos of
research; it will certainly sharpon our discussions about the
nature and aims of education. ln the future, our recommonda.
tions to improve education should be based on pragmatic con-
sideratlons rather than misleading arguments about disciplines
and nondisciplines. Finally, a demystification of the disciplines -
may prompt us to question the current fragmentation ot higher
education along traditional disciplinary Iines.
1. H. S. Broudy, "What do Professore ot Education Professi" The Educetional
Forum 44 (May 1980):441-51; Frederick F. Ritsch, "Teacher Preparatlon and
the Liberal Arts, " The Educat/ onal Forum 45 (May 1981):405-10.
2. James R. Miller and Jon l. Young, “Professional Education: Boginnlng of the
End, or End of the Beginning? ," The Educarional Forum 45 (January v
3. Jonae F. Soltis, An Introduci/ on to the Analysls o! Educariona/ concepts, 2nd
ed. (Fieading, Ma. : Addlson-Wesley, 1978), pp. 23-26.
. lbld. , p. 25.
. lbid. , p. 26.
. John Walton, “A Discipline of Education, " in The Discipline of Education, ed.
John Walton and James L. Kuethe (Madison, Wi. : University or Wisconsln
Prese, 1963), p. 12.
7. James L. Kuethe, “Education: The Discipline that Concern Built, " in The
Discipline of Education, pp. 73-84.
n.3. Peters, “Commentsﬂ in The Discipline or Education, pp. 18-19.
Paui H. Hirst, "Phllosophy and Educationai Theory, " British Journa/ o! Educa-
Ilonal studies 12 (1963):51-64.
10. Marc Belth, Education as a Discipline (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1965).
11. Christopher Jencks and David Riesman The Academic Revolurlon (Garden Cl-
ty, N. Y.: Anchor Books of Doubieday, 1969), pp. 523-24.
12. lbld. , pp. 525-28.