Philosophy, Dr. W.A. Kritsonis


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Dr. William Allan Kritsonis earned his BA in 1969 from Central Washington University, Ellensburg, Washington. In 1971, he earned his M.Ed. from Seattle Pacific University. In 1976, he earned his PhD from the University of Iowa. In 1981, he was a Visiting Scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, and in 1987 was a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California.
In June 2008, Dr. Kritsonis received the Doctor of Humane Letters, School of Graduate Studies from Southern Christian University. The ceremony was held at the Hilton Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana

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Philosophy, Dr. W.A. Kritsonis

  1. 1. Philosophical Perspectives in Education William Allan Kritsonis, PhD Questions for Consideration 1. How can philosophical inquiry aid the educational leader in examining problems and decisions facing education in general, and a district or a campus in particular? 2. How is it possible for educational leaders to create educational theories and even policies from examining and extrapolating from the various philosophical systems? 3. How can the study of philosophy, viewed from an educational focus, stimulate teachers and administrators to think about education in general terms and for the general good of students; and how will these studies help to avert empty promises of panaceas, or the lure of subscribing to propagandistic slogans which mean little to the goals of education? 4. The eleven educational philosophies/theories discussed in this chapter can be clustered into two major groups. The philosophies within these groups have strong parallels and the general comparisons can simplify the process of identifying them. Make a “t-chart” with a “traditional” heading on one side and “non-traditional” on the other. Place each of the philosophies on one side or the other as you read.
  2. 2. This chapter is a summary of the major philosophical perspectives in education. The purpose of this chapter is to assist the reader in relearning, classifying, comparing, contrasting, and analyzing these philosophical perspectives. Ultimately, self-analysis and self-evaluation of our own philosophies of leadership and teaching will result in more deliberate, purposeful decision making in relation to our visions and goals. The chapter is divided into the following sections: 1) Potential questions to consider for preparation for the Comprehensive exams. Our final exam for the Philosophical Perspectives class had six excellent question, of which I have included three that have the most likely application to our daily practice as educators; 2) key terms and definitions; 3) an introduction on why educators should study philosophy; 4) Idealism; 5) Realism; 6) Naturalism; 7) Pragmatism; 8) Progressivism; 9) Existentialism; 10) Essentialism; 11) Perennialism; 12) Social Reconstructionism; 13) Critical Theory; 14) suggested follow-up activities for application to your personal experiences; and 15) internet links to relevant sites for each of the philosophies. Introduction: Why Study Philosophy? The great philosophers have struggled with the dualistic dilemma of mind and body for thousands of years. Educators, too, have a dualistic dilemma between theory and practice: The classroom theories of
  3. 3. professional training and thought, to the classroom practice of professional action. Gerald Gutek, in Philosophical and Ideological Perspectives on Education, writes that “theory without practice is insufficient; practice unguided by theory is aimless” (1). The purpose of studying philosophical perspectives in education is, ideally, to give aim to the myriad of “practices” that are being proposed in our current era of educational reform. When we talk about “philosophy” we are talking about how one views the world. Every philosophy has an ontology (a view of what reality is), an epistemology (a view of how we know about that reality), and an axiology (those concepts that are valued within this reality). How one view’s reality (ontology) shapes his/her beliefs about knowledge (epistemology). A particular perspective of reality assumes, or is based on, specific conceptions of human nature. This chapter’s summary of philosophical perspectives in education will focus on Idealism, Realism, Thomism, Naturalism, Pragmatism, Progressivism, Existentialism, Essentialism, Perennialism, Social Reconstructivism, and Critical Theory. “Education” refers to the process of enculturation of a society’s young into the cultural life of the community. This enculturation happens informally in the society through the family, church, media, government, and peers. It also occurs more formally in the school setting. Therefore,
  4. 4. philosophers have long recognized the importance of the interaction between human beings and society. Education, then, is the transmission of values. The powerful philosophies that have transcended time have also shaped our view of the world and our view of human nature, and, therefore, our view of education. The perspective of a philosophy in education must be discussed in terms other than ontology, epistemology, and axiology. It must investigate how reality is taught, how truth is taught, why schools exist, what should be taught (the curriculum), the role of the teacher, the role of the student, and the school’s attitude toward change. Two and a half years ago, Cohort VIII presented in depth self- analyses of leadership style and teaching style in terms of the major philosophical “isms” mentioned above. To a person, we were amazed at how our “personal philosophies” were actually a combination of many, if not all, of the “isms” in one way or another. An analysis of one class period would likely reveal many of the “isms” being implemented, often contradictory ones. How does this ‘meritage’ of philosophical ideas survive in our supposedly rational minds? The study of philosophical perspectives as systems of thought require us to use the scientific method of analysis to pull apart the numerous world-views that have been proposed in order to understand the individual parts more clearly. It is like an inquisitive
  5. 5. youngster who takes apart the lawnmower to understand how it works. In one pile of parts he/she investigates the workings of the ignition system. Another pile contains parts that deal with the rotation of the blade. A study of the individual parts allows for a deeper understanding of how the entire lawnmower interacts as a system when it is put back together again. Similarly, in this chapter, we will pull out the different philosophical perspectives in education with the hope of having a better understanding of ourselves when they are reassembled. It is this reflective process that creates consciousness of the theories that underpin our practices. With this awareness we can evaluate our practices as teachers and administrators within the context of the educational missions of our district, state, and nation. In this way, philosophy of education can help us avoid “promises of panaceas or … propagandistic slogans…” and “encourage teachers to examine and to formulate the broad personal and professional goals that should guide educational practice” (Gutek, 10). How appropriate that Plato’s famous line of “know thyself” is also the purpose of this inquiry. We must know ourselves as educators in order for our practice to have aim! Idealism In Socrates’ and Plato’s era, those known as Sophists proposed one of the dominant theories of philosophical ethics. The word sophist stimulates
  6. 6. thoughts of “sophomore” (wise fool) and “sophistry” (deceitful argumentation), but simply stated it was a belief in the relativity of beliefs about concepts such as truth, beauty, and good. The sophists argued for situational ethics, which means that truth, beauty, and good change based on the experiential circumstances of the individual. Therefore, ethics will change when circumstances change. The sophists believed that education could be achieved through specialized vocational or professional training that fit the individual. The emphasis was on specialization. From a modern anthropological perspective, the sophists have much in common with our society’s efforts to foster cultural understanding, religious tolerance, and even acceptance of economically influenced social behaviors. The term “situational ethics” stirs images of “situational leadership”, not so much in a consistency of beliefs but in the procedural interactions with changing circumstances. The Sophists claim that changing experiences and circumstances impacts ethics. This view hints of ‘primordial’ existentialism. A strong argument can be made that the Sophists were professing a world-view similar to the more eloquent writings of later existentialists Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. As a student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle, the Greek philosopher Plato is considered to be the founder of the western philosophy
  7. 7. of Idealism. Socrates and Plato developed a philosophical system that responded directly to the dominant Sophists of the day, and created the foundation for philosophical inquiry by western civilization. Plato’s major works include The Republic, Protagoras, and Phaedo. Plato’s Cave Allegory, which has achieved icon status in western learning, defines reality as the world of the mind. Plato believed that all knowledge of the universe had an underlying unity and that through the trauma of birth humans lost memory of this universal knowledge. Therefore, the purpose of education, and LIFE, was to journey inward into one’s own mind to “educe”, or pull out, the universal knowledge that existed within. Thus the famous mantra of “know thyself.” The journey inward is achieved through the Socratic method of questioning, and dialogue with others as a means to question ourselves. Through such reflective questioning, Plato believed the universal (big ‘T’) Truths could be learned. The cave serves as a symbol for the world where people do not know themselves, but instead only see man made shadows of ideas. Because of the lack of inquiry about these shadows, people believe them to be (little ‘t’) truths. For Plato, the lack of inquiry of one’s own mind results in self- deception. Such self-deception is equated to imprisonment as the people of the cave are chained. Freedom is achieved through the arduous journey out
  8. 8. of the cave to the light where the universal Truths will be understood. At that point, the newly “enlightened” philosopher should return to the cave to lead, guide, and rescue others. The parallels to western religion and teaching are astounding. God/Allah/Yahweh is a universal Being and All Knowing often represented as the light that will lead mankind from darkness. Yet He lives “within” everyone and individually people must seek Him. This journey can be difficult and may require difficult changes in a person’s life and lifestyle. When an individual becomes enlightened to this Universal Knowledge, he or she should return to lead, guide, and rescue others. Christianity and Islam in particular have evangelical elements that have made them two of the most prolific religions in the world. Plato’s impact on western philosophy reaches far into history to our modern times, which is why subsequent philosophical perspectives in education will have elements that are similar to Plato’s Idealism and other philosophies in between. Nietzsche, regardless of personal opinions of his work, offers a good definition of knowledge: “the strength of knowledge does not depend on its degree of truth but on its age, on the degree to which it has been incorporated…” (The Gay Science, 169-70). The ontology (what is reality) of Plato is the world of the mind. It is in the world of the mind where one sees universal Truths or the shadowy
  9. 9. truths. Plato’s epistemology (how do we know) is that ideas are universal and therefore consistent, allowing knowledge to be recognized like a reminiscence of the universal ideas that exist within all of our minds. Idealist axiology (values) is the imitation of the ideal self or emulation of an ‘enlightened’ persona. Based on the Idealist ontology, epistemology, and axiology, we can understand the Idealist perspective in education. To teach reality Idealists teach subjects that inquire about the mind such as literature, philosophy, and religion. Teaching Truth is accomplished through teaching ideas using lecture and discussion. Lecture and discussion as a teaching method is consistent with the role of the teacher as a person to be emulated, the enlightened one, and that goodness is taught through the imitation of heroes and exemplars. The Idealist educator believes strongly in his or her role as an exemplar for students. The purpose of a school’s existence is to sharpen minds and the intellectual process so that students can learn the “wisdom of the ages” (the Idealist curriculum). The great works that profess the wisdom of the ages in themselves become exemplars of intellectual thinking to be emulated. The role of the student is to receive and memorize knowledge. Students do not create knowledge because knowledge already exists universally. From an Idealist perspective, since Truth cannot be changed it must be preserved which means that an Idealist school would be
  10. 10. against changes that threaten the pursuit of the world of the mind. The Conservatism of Edmund Burke in the 18th century is a more modern application of Idealism in that he reacted against the revolutionary changes of his century. He believed in the “accumulated wisdom of the human race, as a force for social stability” (Gutek, 198). Realism Plato’s greatest student was also his greatest critic. After studying under Plato, Aristotle challenged the Idealist ontology of the world of the mind as a result of his scientific inquiries into the natural world. Aristotle created a hierarchy of nature. At the bottom were inanimate objects, such as rocks, and progressively ranking plant and animal life forms with humans at the top. What placed humans at the top, according to Aristotle, was the ability to reason. Aristotle has been called the “Father of Science” because of his methodical inquiries into the natural world, but when such methods are built on Plato’s emphasis of self-inquiry, these two Greek philosophers created a methodology for philosophical inquiry that has permeated the last two thousand years. Philosophical inquiry has become self-examination using the scientific method of inquiry. Aristotle’s scientific study of material, objective reality did not completely disregard his Idealist teacher. Aristotle believed that humans also possessed a soul, or mind, thus setting
  11. 11. up the great philosophical dilemma about the duality of human nature (mind and body). Aristotle believed that humankind had the goal to progress toward happiness, which could be achieved through the sharpening of reason. The ontology (reality) for Realism is a world of things. Epistemologically (how we know), Realists use their senses of observation. Unlike Idealism, Realism believes that the universal “Truths” exist in front of us. We don’t discover those “Truths” through reflective inquiry, but through the application of scientific reasoning. The axiology of Realism (values), therefore, is the laws of nature that can be revealed through the application of scientific reason. Teaching reality is done through subjects of the physical world such as math and science. The purpose of a school’s existence, then, is to reveal the order of the world and universe, and the curriculum should teach the laws of physical reality. The curriculum should also include liberal arts, which sharpen the development of rationality. The role of the Realist teacher is to display and impart knowledge while the student manipulates the knowledge and is at best a passive participant. Since Realists believe that humankind is working toward a “goal”, change is seen as positive as long as it is orderly. Truth in the Realist school would be taught for “mastery of information” with the ability to demonstrate or recite
  12. 12. learned material. Basic intellectual access to knowledge is necessary in order for scientific reasoning that requires problem solving, analysis, and evaluation. The Theistic Realism of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century was an important step in the survival of Realism in the Age of Faith. Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae successfully argued that reason and faith are complimentary rather than contradictory as he attempted to synthesize Aristotle’s philosophy with Christian doctrines. Like Aristotle, Aquinas saw humankind working toward a greater good on earth, but added that the ultimate good was the experience of being in the presence of God. Reason was necessary for the implementation of free will. The ontology, epistemology, and axiology of Theistic Realism are the same as Realism, but there are some variations in the perspective of Theistic Realism, or Thomism, in education. Thomists believe that human beings should cultivate both spirituality and reason. Aquinas noted that knowledge does not necessarily lead to morality, so moral education should require the use of reason to recognize and evaluate “courses of action” (Gutek, 54). Moral education is an issue that our schools are currently dealing with. Some politicians believe/argue that poor test scores are a reflection of lower moral standards. A Thomist would assert that the parent is the primary educator of
  13. 13. a child because they cultivate the “values that support morality, religion, and education” (Gutek, 56). Research has been accumulating to support the importance of the role of parental involvement in the academic achievement of a child, and the influence of home life situations that support a child’s academic endeavors, or identifies him/her as “at-risk.” Finally, the Thomist teacher “should be a skilled communicator…” using words correctly, and communicating within the realm of the student’s experience. The Thomist teacher should lead a student to new educational outcomes based on what the student already knows, which requires “careful structuring and organizing of lessons” (Gutek, 57). Essentially, an orderly, rational approach to the lesson will lead the student forward. For many Thomists, and many teachers today, teaching comes from a love of learning and a call “to serve humanity” (Gutek, 57). Naturalism Idealists, Realists, and Thomists have clear lines of demarcation from one another, but the development of Naturalism in the early 18th century, and it’s evolution in to the late 19th century, reveals a new view of human nature. The three primary Naturalists are Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Heinrich Pestalozzi, and Herbert Spencer. Rousseau often revealed a romantic view of human nature, Pestalozzi retained a belief in God, and Spencer adapted
  14. 14. Darwin’s evolutionary theories into a competitive ethical system (Gutek, 63). Despite these differences, Naturalists share three common beliefs: 1) “one must look to nature and to human nature, as part of the natural order, for the purposes of education”, 2) we understand nature “through the senses”, and 3) because “nature’s processes are slow…education also should be unhurried” (Gutek, 63). The ontology (reality) for Naturalism is nature itself. Naturalists believe that human nature is defined by the interaction of human beings with their environment, therefore, “there is no single order of reality” (Gutek, 63). The subjectivity of human nature is thus introduced … a clear separation from the objectivity of Idealism and Realism. If human nature is defined through interaction with nature, the epistemology (how we know) of Naturalism is observing results using the scientific method of inquiry. A child can learn how to do something through trial and error. The axiology (values) of Naturalism is to harmonize one’s life more closely with nature. Notice how harmony with nature as a goal has replaced Plato’s universal Truths, Aristotle’s happiness, and Aquinas’ presence of God. Teaching the reality of Naturalism, if reality is nature itself, is achieved by observation of nature. Nature will teach us what is real and truth can be learned through experiences and discoveries, and interactions with others. Nature is the
  15. 15. teacher. The role of the ‘human teacher’ is that of a facilitator that verbalizes little, focuses on the child’s growth development, and allows the child to discover in a self-directed, unhurried pace. The role of the Naturalist teacher is also very different from that of the verbal teacher in Idealism, Realism, and Thomism. The Naturalist student is involved and interactive rather than a passive receptacle of pre-existing knowledge. In this context, schools exist to provide ‘guidance’ over a twenty-year period until the student develops the habit of being a life long learner. The curriculum should consist of practical subjects that allow for the mastery of nature. Naturalist educators see change as a part of nature but warn of the role of society in the development of character. Since character development is currently a hot educational issue, it is interesting to note that Rousseau clarified the difference between two types of self-esteem. The first was amour de soi, or the intrinsic love of being, and amour propre, or pride. Rousseau believed that intrinsic love of being could be learned from nature, but pride and selfishness would be learned from society. Here, the issue of self-esteem has entered the education lexicon, and would remain a critical element of educational perspectives up to today. Pestalozzi (1747-1827) is believed to be the Naturalist who had the greatest impact on the development of American schools. His life coincided
  16. 16. with the events of the French Revolution and the early nation building of the young United States. As with Rousseau, Pestalozzi likely received a traditional education founded on the principles of Idealism and Realism. Therefore, elements of both will be evident in Naturalism. Like the Realists, Pestalozzi believed that reason was the key to understanding the natural laws of the universe. The purpose of studying those laws is where he and the other Naturalists differed. Pestalozzi argued that children are naturally good and are only corrupted by society. Therefore, children could be made to be good through education in spite of their parents and society. In the inner cities and impoverished rural areas of the United States, the belief of education as an equalizer, as a tool to create “good” people regardless of sociological background, is central to the belief that education is critical to democracy (as argued by Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann). Darwin’s Origin of Species, an example of the use of reason to discover the natural law of specie diversification, inadvertently brought forth a new twist on Naturalism. Evolutionary Naturalism became popular in its argument that humankind successfully adapted to a changing natural environment. Herbert Spencer, however, transferred the natural law to society, arguing that individuals and even nations compete for survival, and only the most fit will adapt to the changing social environment being created
  17. 17. by the industrial revolution. Spencer saw education as preparation for a competitive world and emphasized early identification of skills and talents to determine where a child’s energies could produce the most beneficial education for his survival. The undemocratic language of such beliefs is perhaps one of the reasons that “tracking” as an educational practice, is considered unethical. Naturalism took several turns, all of which have influenced our educational practices, yet the primary contribution is the perspective that nature (environment) influences the development of human beings (physical, intellectual, and social). Naturalism serves as a springboard for perhaps the most influential philosophy in American education; John Dewey’s Pragmatism, and the introduction of human development as a psychological process resulting from interaction with a subjective environment. Pragmatism Pragmatism is the first educational philosophy credited to American origin. Despite the demarcation from Idealism, Realism, and Thomism to Naturalism, these philosophies shared a common view of reality, “in which truth is a priori, or prior to and independent of human experience” (Gutek, 78). Even the Naturalists who leaned more toward subjectivity believed in natural laws that could be discovered through reason. Naturalism can be
  18. 18. understood as a bridge between the traditional philosophies of Idealism and Realism, and Pragmatism. Pragmatism took a step in a different direction in that it asserted that “truth was … derived from human experience” (Gutek, 78). Gutek argues that Pragmatism is an expression of America’s frontier experience from the preceding century (1800’s) in which success was “judged in terms of the consequences that came from transforming the environment for human purposes” (79). Pragmatism developed in the social atmosphere of the Industrial Revolution in the last forty years of the 19th century. Despite the enormous wealth and the growing reputation of America as the land of financial opportunity, underneath the gild of gold were the social side effects of industrialization: child labor, filthy tenements, political corruption, proliferation of disease, toxic food and drugs, a rising consciousness of social stratification, and undemocratic conduct by big business and government. The political Progressive movement that addressed the social problems of industrial America was the backdrop of John Dewey’s Pragmatism. Progressives set out to change society through social reform. Dewey, like the American frontiersmen and pioneers that expanded west, believed in practical application of ideas. Therefore, Dewey believed that philosophy should solve human problems.
  19. 19. Although Dewey would later disagree with the Progressive perspective of education, he was himself a Progressive, and he believed he had a mission to “make the earth a better place to live, by reform and education” (Gutek, 80). One of the earliest influences on Dewey was his colleague George Herbert Mead. Mead developed a theory that children learn through play, and thus, early childhood education could use play as a connection to later activities, such as work (Gutek, 81). Like the Naturalists, Dewey believed that a child learns through interaction with his/her environment (a social environment in this case, rather than nature). For Dewey’s philosophy of Pragmatism, the ontology (reality) is a world of experiences. His epistemology (how we know) is still based on sensations, but is subjective in that individuals experience sensations differently. In Pragmatism, the school serves a social function for society by providing a place where “children’s individual tendencies were to be directed toward cooperative living in the school community” (Gutek, 82). The curriculum required the “language, skills, and knowledge common to group life” and, therefore, makes education “a deliberate process of bringing the immature person into cultural participation by providing the necessary symbolic and linguistic tools needed for group interaction and communication” (Gutek, 93). In this way, education serves the purpose of transmitting cultural skills,
  20. 20. knowledge, and values to perpetuate the cultural heritage. However, for Dewey this meant providing the students with the skills, knowledge, and values to improve social conditions. Subjects include social sciences such as history and geography, organized sciences, and “making and doing” (Gutek, 99). Dewey’s Pragmatism closed the gap between theory and practice (thought and action). The curriculum of Pragmatism is one of “making and doing.” Modern examples of this are not “hands-on” activities as is often assumed. A better example would be a “hands-on” project that requires the cooperation of several students. In the Pragmatist perspective of education, the student is an active participant and contributes to the learning process. Dewey believed that teacher questioning (as is the tradition of Idealism and Realism) imposed external discipline. Instead, activities are problem oriented and required self-direction and self-discipline. The teacher became a resource person, or a guide. The role of the teacher is similar to Naturalism, but Dewey’s Pragmatic student had more focused objectives in his/her learning than Rousseau’s. Because of Dewey’s Laboratory School, Pragmatism is also referred to as Experimentalism. In this phrase we understand the axiology (values) of Pragmatism. Commonly known as “the public test”, Dewey argued that
  21. 21. how children conducted themselves in the greater society would be a measurable, pragmatic consequence of their education. As a member of a society that was experiencing massive immigration in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Dewey was a “moral relativist.” He believed that hierarchical arrangements of value systems in his modern world created the need to resolve cross-cultural conflicts. Gutek writes that “the basis of Experimentalist valuation was found in human preferences, wants, wishes, desires, and needs” (92). Dewey’s axiology is still relevant today with a world wide, digitally based economy about to blossom. Americans no longer wait for the world to come to them; the Internet takes Americans to the world. The problem of cultural conflict, in Pragmatism, offers a society the opportunity for “growth of social intelligence and enrichment” (Gutek, 92). Teaching “Truth” through Pragmatism is done through problem solving and projects, both of which are seen as the basis of social progress. Progressivism Progressivism, like Pragmatism, has a strong foothold in Naturalism while at the same time looking for ways to improve and perfect human environments by applying intelligence and the scientific method. Human beings, in this context, are capable of ‘progress’. Progressivism in education is part of Progressivism in the United States. Progressives such as Woodrow
  22. 22. Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Jane Adams, and Upton Sinclair (to name a few) used their position as educated citizens to fight the corruptions of industrial society. Progressives were sometimes called ‘muckrakers’ for their strategy of digging up unseemly stories of corporate giants. Dewey would eventually criticize Progressive education as a reaction to traditional education (Idealism, Realism, and Thomism). That is why Dewey developed philosophy with pragmatic applications. The ontology (reality) of Progressivism is that through interaction with the environment, people grow and develop. Progressive epistemology (how we know) states that knowledge is the outcome of inquiry and interaction. Progressive axiology (values) is anything that promotes growth. Progressives teach their view of reality with subject matter that is associated with the personal experiences of the children and through interaction with the environment. This sounds very similar to the Constructivist theory of learning. Schools exist, for the Progressivist, to serve as a laboratory for experimentation because the focus is on the growth of the child and not on the subject matter. The curriculum is similar to Dewey’s Pragmatism in that there is a focus on group activities, experiences, problem solving, and projects. The Progressive teacher serves as a resource person and facilitator of knowledge while the student is free to develop naturally through active
  23. 23. participation. Progressives, like the Naturalists, believed in a child-centered curriculum. Finally, since the Progressive reality is growth and development, Progressives are receptive to change in schools that are associated with the needs of child growth and development. Existentialism While Dewey, as a citizen of the Industrial Revolution, wanted Pragmatism to prepare children to make society better, Existentialism that began approximately around the same time wanted to free the individual from “the herd, the crowd, or the mass society” of the Industrial Age (Gutek, 108). Like the Pragmatists, the Existentialists recognized that industrialization brought as many ills to civilization as it did benefits. Prominent Existentialists of the 19th century include Soren Kierkegaard, Freidrich Nietzsche, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In the 20th century, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre have written some of the most influential works. Overall, however, Existentialism is not so much a system of thought as it is a philosophical perspective (Gutek, 107). Where Dewey’s Pragmatism argued that truth was based on human experience, the Existentialists argued that truth IS subjectivity (the title of Kierkegaard’s famous work). In the search for absolutes, or big “T” truths, Existentialists argue that the only truth that exists for all humankind is that
  24. 24. each individual lives a completely subjective life, with a world-view based on that individual’s personal experiences. Previous philosophies held the belief that humankind had an essence prior to existence. In other words, that there was a ‘human nature’. Existentialists take the interaction between an individual and his/her environment to its logical conclusion by writing that existence precedes essence. In other words, there is no human nature until the individual is born into the world. At that point, like Rousseau and Pestalozzi, the child is a tabla rasa, or blank slate, onto which the experiences of life will combine and evolve into a subjective worldview, with subjective values for that individual. Individuals can communicate within a society because of similar experiences. However, the previous experiences and the new experiences that are combined with and the complex valuations that take place cannot be the same for any two individuals. As the Industrial Age flourished, Existentialists revolted against the objectification of mass society. For an Existentialist, freedom of choice is a recurring theme, and emphasis is turned from reason to ‘passion’ as a driving force in human development. Sartre contradicts Aristotle’s belief that people are rational creatures. Sartre argues that each person freely chooses his/her own meaning, or essence, because there are no universal
  25. 25. truths or goals that humanity is striving toward. With this absolute freedom of choice comes responsibility. Nietzsche wrote, in The Gay Science, “thoughts are the shadows of our feelings – always darker, emptier, and simpler” (203). Here Nietzsche places passion above reason because reason is merely a tool to try to understand the complexities of human emotion…to use words to describe the indescribable. Existentialism, as a philosophical perspective in education, is concerned with mass education in school systems that reflect the factory model of the industrial era. Existentialists believe that the use of the scientific method to analyze people breaks down “the quality of human experience into measurable and quantified responses” (Gutek, 114). One way for Existentialists to inquire about the human experience is a process known as Phenomenology, which is a method of analyzing conscious awareness of experiences of how objects or events appear to the individual. Therefore, the Existential epistemology (how do we know) is personal, subjective choice. The axiology (value) of an Existentialist is freedom. Teaching the Existential reality, the world of existing, can be accomplished through art, ethics, or philosophy. If truth is subjectivity, then teaching truth is a process of arousing student awareness of his/her subjectivity. This can be accomplished through Socratic questioning and
  26. 26. dialogue, but unlike the Idealists, the Existential teacher does not know the answers, and only the student can construct the meaning. The role of the teacher, then, is one of questioner, and assists the student’s personal journey. The student’s role is self-determined. Despite the differences from the ontology and epistemology of Plato’s Idealism, the role of teacher as a guide for the student’s personal inward journey is interestingly similar. Regarding change, Existentialism is the exact opposite of Idealism. While Idealism is anti-change, Existentialism understands that change is required at all times. Existentialism serves an important role in modern schools because of its role in the development of humanistic psychology that focuses on the development of identity rather than breaking an individual down into a set of identifiable impulses. Essentialism Essentialism is an educational philosophy that involves a return to the basic skills, arts, and sciences that have been useful in the past and will likely be useful in the future. This theory has had a long history in the United States and reemerges whenever the issue of school efficiency and productivity is questioned. There are six primary themes of Essentialism: 1) elementary curriculum should focus on reading and math literacy, 2) secondary curriculum should focus on math, science, language, and
  27. 27. literature, 3) discipline is needed for a proper learning environment, 4) respect for legitimate authority, 5) students must put forth effort to master knowledge and skills, and 6) teachers must be mature and well-educated in their subject area. The authors of A Nation at Risk would be considered Essentialists (Gutek, 266). In this context, the last 20 years of reform as a result of A Nation at Risk can be interpreted, in part, as an Essentialist movement. The College Board (Advanced Placement program) produced Academic Preparation for College, which outlined the essential skills needed to work in college. The Advanced Placement program, therefore, has capitalized on the Essentialist revival of late. The ontology (reality), epistemology (how we know), and axiology (values) of Essentialism are very similar to the traditional philosophies of Idealism, Realism, and Thomism, while at the same time oppositional to Naturalism, Pragmatism, and Existentialism. The ontology of Essentialism is a world of the mind and things. The role of the Essentialist school is to transmit cultural elements. The mission is academic not social. The curriculum of Essentialism is subject-matter curriculum, “organized according to carefully arranged principles of scope and sequence” (Gutek, 274). The Essentialist teacher is an academic authority figure.
  28. 28. Perennialism The Perennialists theory of education is closely related to, and based on Realism and Thomism. Perennialism believes that human nature is constant. The ontology (reality) of Perennialism is a world of God and reason. Epistemologically (how we know), Perennialists rely on the cultivation of reason and revelation, and their axiology (values) are rationality and intellect. Perennialism is most closely associated with the Catholic school system. Schools exist to develop reason and reveal God’s will, teaching the reality of a world of God and reason through disciplinary subjects and doctrine. This statement alone explains why Perennialists are sometimes referred to as Neo-Thomists. The curriculum of a Perennialist school is the “great books”, or classics of the Western world. The role of the teacher is to tell students what they need to know, or to interpret the great books for the students. A Perennialist teacher should have a liberal arts and science background. Like Realism, the Perennialist student is a passive receptacle. Since human nature is a constant to the Perennialist, no real change is needed. Perennialists, like the Essentialists, cry out against believed erosion of academic standards. The Perennialist extends the erosion to ethical standards as well. Social Reconstructionists argue that
  29. 29. Perennialism is nothing more than a Eurocentric ideology to support historically dominant institutions. Social Reconstructionism Social Reconstructionist oppose the conservative Essentialist and Perennialist theories regarded to be “reflective theories that mirror inherited social patterns and values” (Gutek, 307). According to Gutek, Social Reconstructionists claim to follow the Pragmatism of John Dewey but want to move beyond reconstructing the individual’s experience to reconstruction of the social and cultural experience (307). The various forms of Social Reconstructivism that have developed share three common premises: 1) “all philosophies, ideologies, and theories are culturally based and emerge from specific cultural patterns, 2) culture, as a dynamic process, is growing and changing, and 3) human beings can refashion culture so that it promotes human growth and development” (Gutek, 307). Social Reconstructionists reject Realism, Thomism, Essentialism, and Perennialism because they are all based on “abstract categories of unchanging reality, human nature, truth, and value” (Gutek, 307). In essence, Social Reconstructionists want students to be able to evaluate the beliefs and values of their society. Those beliefs and values that are determined to exist because of custom should be reconstructed. Science and technology can be used to achieve goals of
  30. 30. social reconstruction and to solve the modern societal crisis of economic inequalities based on ethnicity. Social Reconstructionists believe that Americans have not adequately distinguished the difference between “schooling” and “education.” Americans have a faith in the power of schooling to solve all problems and saw it as an entity isolated from economic, social, and political influences. The Nazi’s of Germany and Soviet Communists demonstrated how school could be used to serve the interests of the dominant institutions. When Social Reconstructionists argue for using schools to create a new social order, they often hear charges of ‘indoctrination.’ Reconstructionists, however, believe that “schools are to identify the major social problems that contribute to the cultural crisis and are to create the skills and attitudes that will resolve these problems” (Gutek, 319). The ontology (reality) of Social Reconstructivism is similar to Progressive beliefs but is rooted in cultural experiences. The epistemology (how we know) has several overlapping principals including truth seeking as a social consciousness, and inquiry through the ‘group mind.’ The axiology (values) of Social Reconstructionists is social self-realization. Reality is best taught through history, especially history that focuses on social struggle. Human survival and education are seen as interrelated. Schools exist for
  31. 31. Reconstructivism to awaken social consciousness and to create equality in both society and education. The curriculum, therefore, would focus on problem solving and cooperative learning in the social sciences, such as economics, anthropology, sociology, political science, and psychology. The Social Reconstructivist teacher facilitates student growth through problem solving, group activities, and cooperative learning. The student uses problem solving as a means to achieve greater social consciousness. Finally, the school’s attitude toward change is centered on social change since students must develop social self-realization. Critical Theory Brief mention of Critical Theory is needed because of a renewed interest in multicultural education. Critical Theorists, like the Social Reconstructionists, argue for an agenda that would transform schools and society. Critical Theorists see “schools, curriculum, teaching, and learning as agencies and activities that transcend the exclusively academic and have important political, economic, social, and educational meanings and implications” (Gutek, 330). They argue that children of economically disadvantaged families, and politically disorganized groups, are taught that they live in a society where “economic, social, and political institutions are functioning correctly” … giving legitimization to the dominant groups and
  32. 32. preserving the hegemony over the subordinate groups (Gutek, 326). Critical Theorists argue that schools are political agencies “that empower some and disempower others” (Gutek, 326). They call for an educational experience that encourages cultural diversity and a curriculum that uses the students unique multicultural experiences to “develop new skills and knowledge” (Gutek, 328). Terms and definitions Axiology – That which is valued. The attempt to prescribe what is good and right conduct. Epistemology – The methodology of how we understand our view of reality. The theory of knowing and knowledge. Ontology – The nature of existence. What is real, or what is reality. Curriculum – The knowledge considered to have the most worth, and valuable to the student as a member of society. The organized “experiences that a student has under the guidance and control of the school” (Gutek, 5). Activities 1. Take a typical day in a class you teach, or taught, and evaluate the philosophical influence behind the different elements of the lesson presentation.
  33. 33. 2. Use the list of educational reforms created in Dr. Kester’s Educational Innovations class and identify the philosophical perspective of the various innovations. 3. Determine the philosophical perspective of national, state, district, and campus mission statements. 4. Use the personalities of the school board that exist in your current district of employment. Knowing that they are likely unaware of the myriad of philosophies intermingled in their verbal professions of what they think is “good for the students and district”, discuss how your awareness of philosophical perspectives in education could assist your practice of situational leadership. 5. Create a family tree of the philosophical perspectives reviewed in this chapter. The family tree should reflect the major divisions and subdivisions to create a visual of the parallels, associations, or connections between the different philosophies. 6. After reviewing your personal self-analysis again, evaluate co-workers and determine if your campus or district “allies” and “foes” are labeled as such because of philosophical differences. Internet Links Plato
  34. 34. Plato Plato’s texts %22Plato%22 Aristotle’s texts iam=dpile&terms=%22Aristotle%22 Aristotle %22Aristotle%22 Pestalozzi Herbert Spencer Pragmatism and Education Power Point Essentialism Philosophy as a Basis for Curriculum slide show History of Progressivism Summary of Some Main Points from Sartre's Existentialism and Human Emotions Existentialist Philosophy %22Existentialism%22
  35. 35. Existentialist Philosophers %22Existentialism%22 Thomism Critical Theory The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas