Saturday, July 05, 2008

What is Educational Philosophy?

A slightly different form of this post was presented as a guest lecture in an educational administration class at HKBU.

An Annotated Definition of Educational Philosophy

I have a difficult task tonight because I have to provide you with an overview of the development of educational philosophy in a way that will hopefully help you develop an educational philosophy of your own in a single lecture. This is a difficult task when you remember that some schools of education split basic educational philosophy into two complete classes. That means that even going fast and just hitting the highlights so that you can get a basic understanding of what educational philosophy is will be difficult in the time we have tonight. I basically have two options: I can either talk really, really fast, giving you lots of names, dates and terms that would leave you saying “Gee he’s really smart but I still don’t have a clue” or I can simply the process. I have chosen to try and simplify the process down to what I consider to be the essence out of 4000 years of philosophic thought from several different civilizations and give you just the very top of the tip of the iceberg that is educational philosophy. So please, please, please remember what you are getting is just the most abbreviated of outlines, a skeleton, the bare bones of what it means to think philosophically about education. You will have to put flesh on those bones yourself but that is Ok because I believe that everyone is a philosopher. Everybody thinks philosophic thoughts. We just need some help and practice to organize those thoughts sometimes.

Even so, I'm going to have to talk really fast.

All that we are going to do tonight is define the term “Philosophy of Education” Once we do this you will have the ability to begin to flesh out you own philosophy of education. This may at first seem to be a silly way to proceed; but as with many things appearances can be deceiving. The way we are going to do this is to get to a working definition of each word, "philosophy" and "education" and then combine those definitions in what I hope will be a meaningful way.

But, before we go farther I want to allow about 10 second for you to take a deep breath and relax and clear your mind. Because we have a long way to go and a short time to get there.

Is everybody relaxed? Are you ready? Here we go.

What is Philosophy?

The word Philosophy literally means “The pursuit of wisdom or knowledge” That does not really help us much. Who doesn’t want to be wise? I’d be willing to bet that if you asked anybody at any time; “Do you want to be wise? Do you love wisdom?” they’d say “Of course!” So the meaning of the word doesn’t help us much.

So let’s look at a definition out of a dictionary:


noun, plural -phies.

1.the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.

2.any of the three branches, namely natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and metaphysical philosophy, that are accepted as composing this study.

3.a system of philosophical doctrine: the philosophy of Spinoza.

4.the critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge, esp. with a view to improving or reconstituting them: the philosophy of science.

5.a system of principles for guidance in practical affairs.

6.a philosophical attitude, as one of composure and calm in the presence of troubles or annoyances.

Philosophy. Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. (accessed: June 17, 2008).

As you can see the more complete dictionary definition does not help much either. Indeed, with definitions like that you’d think a forest was just a bunch of trees.

I think it was the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga who defined philosophy simply as “Thinking about things in a systematic way” and I think that he gives us a better working definition to start with though it is still rather broad. If you think about it his definition includes the literal meaning of the word but expands it in a good way. What I think he means is that all thinking, regardless of the subject is based in philosophy. Every thought, every word, everything that we think we know is tied to a philosophic concept in one way or another; and he if he didn't mean it that way I do mean it that way. When you think, as opposed to acting on an instinct you are engaging in Philosophy.

I know what some of you are thinking: “I’m going to be a science teacher. Science deals in facts not philosophy!” Now I am not going to ask who is thinking that but I am going to say you are wrong. Science is steeped in the philosophy of naturalism which is a type of philosophic realism that developed in the 16th century and rest on a set of assumptions none of which are ultimately provable. Some of these assumptions are:

1. The Universe really exist

2. The Universe is orderly and obeys natural laws

3. We are smart enough to figure out what those laws are.

How do we know any of these statements is true? Yet to be a scientist you must BELIEVE all of them. They are simply considered to be “Self Evident.” Don’t you think I am just picking on science either; every field of study rest upon philosophic assumptions; if you look for them you can find them.

You could argue and some philosophers such as George Berkley have argued that at least of some the statements above are false. Berkley took the, at for me, rather extreme position that matter does not exist. That everything we see is product of our mind or the mind of God and when he did that the other two assumptions of science became problematic as well. Thus, for Berkley the universe does not really exist, it obeys no fixed laws and we cannot know anything true about reality but only what we see. You have probably already heard Berkley’s famous question: “If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it fall, did it make any sound?” The answer depends upon whether you think the universe exist independently of the observer. Most of us would say “Yes, it made a crash when it fell” but Berkley would say you cannot know that because you didn’t see it."

Now obviously I am engaging in a little bit of silliness here because I’m purposely using examples, the materialism inherent in science and Berkley's radical empiricism, that clash with each other. But the object is to show you the reason it is difficult to answer the question “What is Philosophy?” is because philosophers believe different things about the basic structure of the universe and to some extent what you believe the universe to be affects what you see. But how can we come to a definition of a subject is this diverse? Well we could break it up into specific types or branches of philosophy but I’m not sure that helps much at all in a general sense. We are looking for a general answer to the question “What is Philosophy?” not, “What is Scientific Philosophy?” Besides, if we simply put a word to modify “philosophy” in front of it then we just have two words of nonsense, not one. So before we can say "What is educational philosophy?" We must answer the question, "What is Philosophy?"

If you think the conflict between Mr. Berkeley and Science is problematic then I probably shouldn’t tell you that it gets worse. Please remember here that we are touching only the tip top of that iceberg and so most of these statements could be construed as over generalizations

Ludwig Feuerbach believed that the only things that exist is the physical world, no God no mind – just electrons firing in the brain with no higher purpose, nothing except what is. But Alvin Plantinga is Protestant Christian at a Catholic university who uses philosophy to defend a religious belief. Martin Heidegger believed we can only know we are human because we fear death and Ludwig Wittgenstein spent his life questioning our ability to communicate with each other. He thought language was so unreliable that we can never truly know anything about each other or even talk to each other meaningfully because of the connotative problems associated with language

Let me explain this last one a little bit because I see that some of you look like you don’t understand what I mean, which I guess also sort of proves Wittgenstein’s point. I want you to think of the word “Tea.” What images, words, or feelings do you associate with the word “Tea?” Take few seconds to think about what “Tea” means to you. Maybe even as you think about the word write down a few of the mental images you think of when you think of “Tea.”

What comes to mind when you think of tea? How many of you have at least one of these on your list?

  1. Dim Sum

  2. Milk

  3. Lemon

  4. Sugar

  5. Cups

  6. Saucers

  7. China

  8. A shop on the street

Do you know what I think of when I think of “Tea”
  1. Big plastic tumblers

  2. Lots of ice

  3. Screened in porches

  4. Ceiling fans

  5. Baseball on the radio

  6. The fatigue of agricultural work

  7. Bales of hay

  8. Big dogs

So, when you look at the things that I associate with the word “Tea” versus what you associate with the word “Tea” are we really talking about the same thing when we both say “I like tea?” Are we? Is your connotative idea of "Tea" even the same beverage as mine? Connotatively, the way we think about tea is very different. Now if something as common and simple as “tea” is so different because of our background, nationality and upbringing imagine how different our individual conception of much more abstract concepts will be. Doesn't Wittgenstein have a point? How is it possible to really know anything that someone else tells us?

So I ask you again. What is Philosophy?

I think part of the problem we've been having is that we’ve been looking at the problem wrong. Think of the word “Science.” Is Chemistry the same thing as biology? What about Genetics and Astronomy? They share some things but you cannot say that each is the same as the other. The different branches of science are held together by that common set of assumptions that I mentioned earlier and by adherence to the scientific method. Thus different branches of science are held together by the fact that they do different things, Chemistry, Biology, Astronomy and so forth, in the same way.

Likewise, philosophers come in different flavors. Philosophers can focus on metaphysics, logic, morality and ethics to name a few and there are divisions within the divisions but they are tied together not because they believe or because they say the same thing but because of how they approach the subject. So what is the scientific method of philosophy? What links the writings of such diverse people as Jean Paul Sartre, Thomas Aquinas, Friedrich Nietzsche and A.J. Ayer? The answer is that science asks "How" and "What" questions but philosophy ask "Why" and "If" questions. All philosophers from the pre-Socratics until today look at something and ask "Why is that?"or "If that is so then what does it mean?" It could be argued that little children are the most philosophic people on Earth because they are constantly asking strange questions like: "If the cat wags its tail does it become a dog?" But is that any different than asking "If a tree falls in a forest and nobody heard it fall did it make a sound?" Well yes it is because children are, at least if you believe in a rational material that really exist, asking out of an ignorance of biology and at least some of the time Philosophers are asking because they want to challenge our perception of the world.

There is a fly in this ointment however, "Why" and "If" questions cannot normally be answered in a definitive way. So the question behind the question then becomes: Why ask why?" And here, believe it or not we have our answer to the question, "What is Philosophy?" Philosophers are looking for better ways to ask questions. You cannot get the right answer unless you ask the right question. To ask the right question you must question everything. Thinking about things or actually thinking about how to think about things is, I believe the first step in learning. It is the most basic type of intellectual activity and all of us do it all the time. It is also the fundamental activity of philosophers

Philosophy is the art or science asking what questions are worth asking.

Think about that a moment. What we are saying is that when we are looking for answers that we cannot find it might be because we have wrong question. Is it plausible to believe that you will every get the right answers if you are asking the wrong questions?

When viewed that way all of the sometimes contradictory answers above are understandable. So, when we think of education in philosophic terms we need to be sure that we are asking the right question. Our philosophy of education isn’t about the answers we have but about the questions we want to find.

Sometimes doing that means the philosopher ask very strange questions. This is the approach that Descartes used when he consciously tried to doubt everything. What he found was that he could not doubt that he was doubting and therefore there must be someone or some thing to doubt so he was able to say "I cannot doubt that I doubt and doubting requires thinking. Therefore because one must think to doubt and thinking requires a being to think so I think therefore I am.” Which leads me to sometime wonder how many people today are not really here since they never appear to think?

And that brings us to our next question: What is Education?

Most teachers would probably answer the question: "What is education?" by using one of these two models: "Education is imparting knowledge" or "Education is helping the student discover knowledge." because as an educator you can perceive yourself as delivering knowledge or facts to your students on one extreme; or you can, at the other extreme use a curriculum that is based upon letting students explore a subject in more or less unstructured way. Most of you will probably fall somewhere between the two. However, in Hong Kong the public schools tend to lean rather hard towards content based education.

What is interesting about these two ideas is that neither is actually education. They are pedagogy! Pedagogy is the science of educating but not education itself. Pedagogy is means to an end. It is how we deliver a curriculum in schools. If it were the sum of education then no education could ever occur without pedagogy or could have ocurred before a pedagogy existed.

Without a doubt John Dewey is the most important educational philosopher in the last 200 years and yet, in many ways John Dewey was simply an advocate of an improved pedagogy. However, I believe that his pedagogy was based upon a better understanding of what learning is and how education should replicate the way naturally learn. That does not mean I always agree with everything he said. It certainly does not mean that I agree with everything that is done in his name. Dewey believed that education should be tied to experience and that academic skills are best mastered when placed in context of real life situations and when solving actual problems.

Notice if you will the last three words of my previous sentence.

Now remember how we defined philosophy? It is the art of science of asking what questions are worth asking. Dewey, though trying to reform pedagogy got the right answer to the question "What is education" because he asked the right question Why do students find knowledge easier to learn if they see a purpose for those skills? Because if what they learn is seen as valuable to them they have motivation to learn it. Do we, through practice gain the desire for more esoteric knowledge that we have less use for? Yes but that is an acquired taste.

So what is education? Education is the way that humans learn to solve the problems required for living.

So if we put our two definitions together into a unified whole what do we have?

How about this: Educational Philosophy is the process of asking questions in a

way that allows students to gain the answers needed for living in society.

Question #3: Why do I need an educational Philosophy?

Well, given that we are out of time, you'll to answer that one yourself.

Until Next Time
Fai Mao
The Blogger who dabble in Educational Philosophy

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