Preview: Educators confront philosophical issues on a daily basis, often not recognizing them as such. They tend to deal with these issues unreflectively, perhaps overlooking alternative ways to handle them. Our concern in this article is to open up inquiry into these daily issues. The focus will be on critical philosophy to uncover criteria that support educational judgment.Three Conceptions Of Philosophy We should never be ashamed to approve truth or acquire it, no matter what its source might be, even if it might have come from foreign peoples and alien nations far removed from us. To him who seeks the truth, no other object is higher in value. 1 -- Rasail al-Kindi (810-873) Arab philosopher and physicianIt is in trying to resolve such questions that the discussion becomes philosophical,even though it may not be recognized as such. And it is philosophy that can help usmake better choices among goals, values and priorities. But what exactly is this"philosophy?" And how does it help?In daily use the term, "philosophy," is not clear-cut. TV programs offer us thepersonal philosophies of various religious or political leaders. Other people talk abouttheir philosophy in choosing a kindergarten or a college. Some people believe adifference in philosophy distinguishes between Roman Catholic and public schoolingpractices. Still others talk about Progressive or Back-to-Basics philosophy.We see then, that the word "philosophy" is vague, yet, asking someone for herphilosophy on something is different from asking her how she feels about it. "How doyou feel about divorce?" we ask. "I dont like the idea," comes the reply; "but myphilosophy on divorce is that you have to consider whether it might not be better togive up rather than stay in a bad relationship."What, then, is philosophy? To shortcut discussion we can borrow distinctions made byphilosopher John Passmore 2 and separate out three common conceptions ofphilosophy: philosophy as wisdoms; philosophy as ideology; and philosophy ascritical inquiry. These distinctions help us sort out different traditions within what iscalled philosophy by the man-on-the-street (although only critical philosophy isunderstood to be philosophy in Passmores own academic tradition).Although three conceptions of philosophy can be distinguished, there are manycommon elements shared by them. A person may derive an ideology from a wisdom,and then subject it to critical philosophy. A truth discovered through criticalphilosophy may come to be uncritically venerated, as, for example, was the insight in
America that education should center on the child. The three conceptions ofphilosophy, in practice, are found in a mix in the day-to-day practice of the schools.Almost every major philosopher in the critical tradition -- famed philosophers likeSocrates, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Kant and others-- have had much to say in theway of wisdoms about education and much in the way of ideology to say about howwe should go about schooling.Our primary interest in this essay is in philosophy as critical inquiry. Wisdoms andideologies are usually inculcated into us in a way which gives us little opportunity forreflectionand criticism: we are taught them as absolute truths as children. But criticalphilosophy, as we will see, is characterized by an attitude of critical reflection and apractice of analysis that inculcators of wisdoms and ideologies avoid. However,wisdoms, ideologies and critical inquiry are intimately and importantly related,especially in educational practice. Lets examine more closely the difference betweenthese three ideas of philosophy and how each relates to educational practice.Philosophy as WisdomsPhilosophy, however one conceives it, is expected to be more than a passing feeling ora kneejerk opinion. Its supposed to be a thoughtful response to a question or situation.The response may not be very extensively thought out, but its got some element ofreflection in it. Philosophy as wisdom incorporates, at the very least, this notion ofreflection, of thoughtful response.This conception of philosophy as wisdoms includes two related ideas: personalreflections on broad questions, and prophetic wisdoms. Such philosophy is generallyseen as arising out of personal experience or as having sacred origins. For thesereasons we tend not to challenge them with a critical question such as, "How do youknow that?"For example, you have probably read or have heard people say things likea. You cant expect too much from life without being disappointed sometimes; orb. Live and let live, thats what I say;c. Dont smile until Christmas (common advice to new teachers).
Such statements are thought to be philosophical. They are general, they are oftenoffered as reasons for acting, and they have a certain air of thoughtfulness about them.We generally concede people the right to these sorts of reflective opinions and do notpress them for further justification.Philosophy as IdeologyPhilosophy can also be thought of as ideology. An ideology is, by comparison withwisdoms, a more highly organized body of opinion. It usually serves programs ofaction and organizational needs. Philosophy as ideology is what we normally find inschools. For licensing purposes, state departments of education require schools, publicand private, to have available a document that states the schools "philosophy" ofeducation. Significantly, such school philosophies can be acquired pre-packaged.Educational accrediting agencies publish books of them that school planners anddirectors can use to choose among different philosophies of education like so manyitems on a menu.3 Here is an example of such an educational ideology:The social development of elementary school students proceeds as the child becomesaware of the various authority structures that operate throughout the school, thecommunity, the region, and the nation. We believe the school must help the childestablish a perspective on the responsibilities and opportunities inherent in themultitude of authority systems in a democratic social order.4The point of ideology is to provide extensive suggestion as to how to structure andcontrol an organization. This may be subject to debate. Although the example abovementions a"democratic social order," given its emphasis on authority, one couldimagine that with this ideology, a school run like a miniature police-state could berationalized.In developing an ideology, the wisdoms of individuals, prophetic or otherwise, iscalled on to justify policies and day-to-day procedures. But did Moses, Jesus orMohammed ever talk or write about hall passes, or detentions? No. What philosophyas ideology requires is an imagination that stretches the original intents and statementsinto broader or novel applications. Sometimes this imagination goes far beyond anyreasonable interpretation. Indeed, deeply pious people may complain that the ideologyof a church organization violates the essential spirit of the prophetic teachings, aswhen they complain that teachers in their schools fail exercise forgiveness as often asthey should. A key point here is that organizational demands often substantiallychange the spirit of the original philosophy. Deep moral concerns may be lost inservice of expediency.4A
Philosophy as Critical InquiryThe American Philosophical Association, which represents professional academicphilosophers in the critical tradition, characterizes the activities of philosophy thisway:Properly pursued, philosophy enhances analytical, critical and interpretive capacitiesthat are applicable to any subject-matter, and in any human context. It cultivates thecapacities and appetite for self-expression and reflection, for exchange and debate ofideas, for life-long learning, and for dealing with problems for which there are noeasy answers.5The distinguishing characteristic of philosophy as critical inquiry is its focus oncareful questioning and systematic appraisal, with no special respect given to thesources of the opinions examined. It doesnt matter who said or wrote what. Nor doesit matter what effect critical inquiry might have on an organization. The point of theactivity is not to honor individuals or to bolster organizations, but to try to get to thetruth.Most importantly, in philosophy as critical inquiry, any statement purporting to betruth is challengable. But what are the rules for making such a challenge more thanjust an expression of dislike? What rules there are have been developed throughmillennia in a literature tracing back to Plato and earlier. We will look more closely atthese rules for challenge and investigation later.How does critical philosophy help with educational decisions?We live in a society where wisdoms and ideologies compete. Educators must be ableto fairly select among them in a way which they understand to enhance their practice.Such a selection among competing wisdoms should be as reasonable and as unbiasedas possible. Critical philosophy has at its disposal a wide variety of tools for analyzingand appraising educational debates. Educational disputes in our society tend to beparticularly ideological. Practitioners need tools which are neutral to these disputes inorder to deal with day-to-day problems in schools. Here, for example, is a list of thekinds of questions educators confront on a day-to-day basis, and, in effect, decideupon, whether thoughtfully or not1. Should a talkative student be silenced for the sake of the class?2. Should student infractions of the rules ever be overlooked?
3. Should grading be based purely on achievement or should effort be factored in?These first three questions bring up the issue as to how the needs of individuals shouldbe balanced against the needs of managing a group. Philosophy as ideology providesanswers here; but there are competing ideologies. Philosophy as critical inquiryenables a reasoned choice. There are many other questions of similar importance thatraise other philosophical issues. Consider these, for example:4. Should students be taught to tolerate those things their parents believe are immoral?This question comes up, for example, when sexual preference or practice is acurriculum issue.5. Should a teacher always follow administrative policy?This may be an issue of how to handle a conflict between personal morality andschool rules. The many wisdoms and ideologies of our pluralistic society offercompeting, even contradictory answers to such questions. For question 5, for example,one ideology might state that a teachers primary duty is to the school and the policiesthat govern it; therefore, the teacher should always follow policy. Another ideologymight hold that the needs of the child come first in any educational organization,therefore, there will be occasions when policies have to be ignored. Who is to saywhich of these two ideologies is better and why? Critical inquiry gives us the tools toanswer this question.SUMMARYWithin education, the term "philosophy" is casually used to cover a complex andvaried group of traditions. There are at least three different traditions which arecommonly called "philosophical":Wisdoms: broad pronouncements taken as authoritative. These can range fromisolated statements of "crackerbarrel" philosophers, to complex and revereddoctrines.Institutional philosophies or ideologies.6, i.e. rationalizations, often theoreticallyintricate, of practices and social institutions School and curricular philosophies tend tobe of this nature.Critical philosophy, i.e. critical analysis or discussion done in any of the traditions
widely accepted as Socratic. It assumes the capacity of the individual to discern truth,even when in conflict with traditions or institutions.The problem for educators in a pluralistic society is that they must deal withcompeting wisdoms and ideologies. Critical inquiry provides approaches and methodswith enable them to do so with a minimum of bias toward any one of the competingperspectives. The practical use of critical inquiry requires some restriction of focus,initially at least, so that it moves easily from theory to application. Thus, in focussingon education we will restrict critical inquiry to criteriology, that is, it is the study ofthe justifications, sources, and forms of criteria for decision-making in educationalcontexts.