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Introduction Back to Top

Philosophy of Education is a label applied to the study of the purpose, process, nature and ideals of education. It can be considered a branch of both philosophy and education. Education can be defined as the teaching and learning of specific skills, and the imparting of knowledge, judgment and wisdom, and is something broader than the societal institution of education we often speak of.

Many educationalists consider it a weak and woolly field, too far removed from the practical applications of the real world to be useful. But philosophers dating back to Plato and the Ancient Greeks have given the area much thought and emphasis, and there is little doubt that their work has helped shape the practice of education over the millennia.

Ancient Era Back to Top

Plato is the earliest important educational thinker, and education is an essential element in "The Republic" (his most important work on philosophy and political theory, written around 360 B.C.). In it, he advocates some rather extreme methods: removing children from their mothers' care and raising them as wards of the state, and differentiating children suitable to the various castes, the highest receiving the most education, so that they could act as guardians of the city and care for the less able. He believed that education should be holistic, including facts, skills, physical discipline, music and art. Plato believed that talent and intelligence is not distributed genetically and thus is be found in children born to all classes, although his proposed system of selective public education for an educated minority of the population does not really follow a democratic model.

Aristotle considered human nature, habit and reason to be equally important forces to be cultivated in education, the ultimate aim of which should be to produce good and virtuous citizens. He proposed that teachers lead their students systematically, and that repetition be used as a key tool to develop good habits, unlike Socrates' emphasis on questioning his listeners to bring out their own ideas. He emphasized the balancing of the theoretical and practical aspects of subjects taught, among which he explicitly mentions reading, writing, mathematics, music, physical education, literature, history, and a wide range of sciences, as well as play, which he also considered important.

During the Medieval period, the idea of Perennialism was first formulated by St. Thomas Aquinas in his work "De Magistro". Perennialism holds that one should teach those things deemed to be of everlasting importance to all people everywhere, namely principles and reasoning, not just facts (which are apt to change over time), and that one should teach first about people, not machines or techniques. It was originally religious in nature, and it was only much later that a theory of secular perennialism developed.

Modern Era Back to Top

During the Renaissance, the French skeptic Michel de Montaigne (1533 - 1592) was one of the first to critically look at education. Unusually for his time, Montaigne was willing to question the conventional wisdom of the period, calling into question the whole edifice of the educational system, and the implicit assumption that university-educated philosophers were necessarily wiser than uneducated farm workers, for example.

In the late 17th Century, John Locke produced his influential "Some Thoughts Concerning Education", in which he claimed that a child's mind is a tabula rasa (or "blank slate") and does not contain any innate ideas. According to Locke, the mind is to be educated by a three-pronged approach: the development of a healthy body; the formation of a virtuous character; and the choice of an appropriate academic curriculum. He maintained that a person is to a large extent a product of his education, and also pointed out that knowledge and attitudes acquired in a child's early formative years are disproportionately influential and have important and lasting consequences.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the 18th Century, held that there is one developmental process, common to all humans, driven by natural curiosity which drives the child to learn and adapt to its surroundings. He believed that all children are born ready to learn from their surroundings so as to grow into virtuous adults, but due to the malign influence of corrupt society, they often fail to do so. To counter this, he advocated removing the child from society during education. He also believed that human nature could be infinitely developed through a well-thought pedagogy.

John Dewey was an important progressive educational reformer in the early part of the 20th Century. For Dewey, it was vitally important that education should not be the teaching of mere dead fact, but that the skills and knowledge which students learn be integrated fully into their lives as persons, citizens and human beings, hence his advocacy of "learning-by-doing" and the incorporation of the student's past experiences into the classroom.

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was another very influential educational reformer, and his Waldorf Education model emphasizes a balance of developing the intellect (or head), feeling and artistic life (or heart) and practical skills (or hands), with a view to producing free individuals who would in turn bring about a new, freer social order.

Other important philosophers of education during the 20th Century include the Italian Maria Montessori (1870 - 1952), the Swiss Jean Piaget (1896 - 1980) and the American Neil Postman (1931 - 2003).

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