This article is by Dr Saima Rana – CEO and Principal of Gems World Academy and Chief Education Ambassador at Varkey Foundation.
Philosophy is an odd subject and philosophy of education is an odd sort of philosophy, so that makes it double-down on its oddness.
Philosophy of education has evolved largely at the edges of mainstream philosophy departments in the academy, and has a distinct history that often means they are invisible to that mainstream. Nevertheless, I think it’s important and valuable.
Why worry about philosophy?
For many people, philosophy of any kind isn’t something that they spend much time worrying about. Even so, we all engage with philosophical ideas all the time, but without noticing. Take, for example, the simple claim that education is a good thing.
Immediately a host of issues are raised by this judgment, and certain philosophical positions put to the sword. You’re in the grip of a philosophical issue that has a history and a dialectic whether you are aware of it or not, and thus philosophy, unbeknown to you, is informing your judgment. As the great philosopher Bertrand Russell pointed out long ago, most of our opinions are the fossil remains of forgotten philosophical disputes.
So when we endorse education we’re taking up a position that philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Kant, JS Mill, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Dewey, Russell and others have argued for. We may not have read any of them, or be conscious of their arguments, but nevertheless the fact that the value of education has been subjected to philosophical argument shows that philosophy, and philosophy of education, has weight and importance. And the reasons you have for valuing education as you do will very likely be something that some philosopher somewhere has argued in the past.
So philosophy is hard-baked into many of our ideas; nevertheless, it is hardly a conscious mainstream concern. In Universities and schools, it is a rather boutique subject, sitting within the humanities but with domains straddling the sciences and the arts too, a fact that reflects philosophy’s relevance across all curriculum domains. It isn’t something that attracts everyone, and to people concerned with their business, their jobs, their day-to-day survival, it can seem esoteric and largely irrelevant. But then, books, TV, films, dance, art, restaurants, pleasant conversation, sunbathing can also look irrelevant to such concerns.
I think that we must resist the bad idea that only concern for bare necessities should regiment our thinking about what is ‘really’ important. A good life is important, and philosophy can contribute to that, and can give us the tools for reflecting on what a good life actually is, could be or even should be. There’s nothing esoteric about that issue.
Is education good for everyone?
Philosophers of education raise questions such as: is education good for everyone? what’s education for? is education a human right? are some ways of teaching better than others? what’s the difference between learning and acquiring? what should we teach? what’s the relationship between education and the state? are schools the best way of educating children? what’s the role of a university? should curriculum be taught in schools? Is education about getting a job?
These are just a sample of the questions philosophers of education ask, and each of them raises further philosophical questions. So if we ask whether education is a human right we need to understand what we mean by ‘human right’, and that in turn will raise questions as to whether rights exist or not, and so on.
These are issues that impinge on areas beyond education (because education impinges on areas beyond education) such as law, politics, policy, epistemology, ethics, cognitive science, psychology, sociology, feminism, race theory, technology, employment and history. And the important thing to note is that these are questions that occur to anyone working in education or thinking about what’s best for their child at some point.
They’re genuinely puzzling questions, and require anyone trying to answer them to grapple with philosophical issues as well as they can. In this sense then, philosophy of education is not only important but inevitable so long as education is something we’re concerned about. And it strikes me that it’s better if we are good at thinking through these questions than if we’re not. From that I take it that it’s a good thing to have as many good philosophers of education in the world as we can. And I suppose that many people would agree with that.
However, as any philosopher will tell you, things are rarely straightforward. Hidden within what seems like an obvious assumption can be hidden variables that bring about unintended effects. Technology is full of this sort of thing. We can think of many good ideas that turn out to have consequences we didn’t intend. These ‘Frankenstein’ effects point us to the realization that it is rare that we can master and understand the full import of a decision. And when we consider philosophy of education, and indeed philosophy in general, the looming threat of such Frankenstein Ian unintended consequences is equally real.
Here’s why I think philosophy, and philosophy of education, needs to be handled with care. Remember, I think that philosophy’s an unequivocally good thing. I believe philosophy of education is hugely important for framing arguments and solving puzzles in education. It constructs a vast toolbox for critical thinking which, were it not to exist, would be to impoverish our understanding of this vital area. So, I am no skeptic about the value of philosophy.
But I want to say that even though philosophy and philosophers are a good thing I am wary of seeking to push them too far into the policy arena. Instrumentalising philosophical ideas – irrespective of whether they are good or bad philosophy – brings with it dangers that can backfire in ways that may well bring about more harm than good.
Philosophical ideas that are used by policy makers and instrumentalised tend to be activated by intermediaries who are not engaged in the philosophical discussion first hand. They tend to want a vehicle to push through their own agendas. In this way philosophical theories can become abused and subjected to distortions. In education, as in law, ethics and politics, philosophy is ripe for abuse. Philosophical enquiry is fluid, a dialectic whereby each stage of the argument is met with a counter argument or a new issue requiring consideration.
In this way we can account for the peculiar nature of philosophical progress: the questions may seem the same as when asked by the Ancients, but we’ve learned more, and this process suffers when brought to an abrupt halt by a policy fixing it as a crude, final statement.
We need to be wary
So here’s my philosophical answer to the question as to whether we need philosophy of education: philosophy of education is important and indeed inevitable for anyone considering educational issues. At its best it generates great ideas and debunks bad ones. So we should want it and strive to ensure it thrives. But I am wary of attempts to instrumentalise it because I am wary of unwanted consequences. Educationalists and anyone interested in education need to heed the philosophers of education. (We should heed philosophers generally in fact.)
But we need to be wary of thinking that any philosophical idea can be just taken from the philosophical shelf and inserted into any educational setting, whatever and wherever that is. It takes more than great philosophy of education to make great education. That’s why we shouldn’t disseminate philosophy as policy, but why we should value it nevertheless.
And if that sounds a little counter-intuitive, that’s philosophy for you. Go figure.