What characterizes education in the good society? This is a tremendous subject, and one on which some of the best minds in history have written. Here, I want to limit my comments to the relationship of education to belief and commitment, and to explore some of the social and political implications of that relationship.
Education is about commitment.1 Every component of schooling rests upon particular beliefs about the human person, the role of adult authority, and the purpose of education itself. Every school system, furthermore, answers the key question of political philosophy: Who decides? Charles Glenn, Professor of Educational Leadership and Development at Boston University, put it this way in The Myth of the Common School(1988): “Formal education . . . presents pictures or maps of reality that reflect, unavoidably, particular choices about what is certain and what in question, what is significant and what unworthy of notice. No aspect of schooling can be truly neutral.”
Given this, it seems to me that a truly good education system will articulate a generous and principled framework for education and at the same time honour the deeply-held commitments of the parents whose children are being educated. This balance requires ongoing attention to educational philosophy and its implications for educational practice.
Educational philosophy asks four key questions: What is the aim of education? What is the nature of the child? What is the role of the teacher? Who has ultimate authority? Each possible answer bears immediate consequences for the classroom.
What is the aim of education? This is what the Greeks called a teleological question, or one that aims for the “end” or “purpose” of a thing. Educational history reveals a wide variety of answers. The era of large-scale formal education in Western nations really began in the early 19th century, with national governments gradually funding and then requiring education (at least for primary school) by the end of the century. Since then, teachers have been trained to think of education’s purpose in a number of ways, which include the following: ministering to the child’s body, soul and mind (a religious view); stimulating the mental faculties (“instrumentary education”); developing individual expression and a well-integrated personality (a psychological view); preventing neuroses (a Freudian view); creating loyal citizens (French and American tendencies); preparing for contemporary life (utilitarian); promoting social adjustment (a mid-twentieth-century American movement); advancing revolutionary thinking (Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed).
What is the nature of the child? The Greeks would have called this an ontological question for it pertains to the nature of being. Is the child comprised of body, mind and spirit, as the Abrahamic religions assert? Or a material product of Darwinian evolution whose stages of development recapitulate “man’s ascent” (very popular in the late 19th century)? Is the child tied to her genetic material and IQ? Or is she fully autonomous and self-creating? Is the child’s main task in life to individuate from, or to adjust to, society?
What is the role of the teacher? Should the teacher serve as a moral role model and an intellectual guide? Or is the teacher, rather, a companion in learning? Is the teacher’s job to help the child enter a longstanding conversation that plays out in literature, history, theology, and science, to which she will make her own contribution? Or is the teacher instead tasked with affirming and furthering the child’s own particular interests? Is the teacher beneficent or not? One of the most popular writers in colleges of education in the 1970s (in the United States, at least) was A.S. Neill, who considered the teacher an oppressor and rejected all school structures in favor of a free and unencumbered “child nature.” Or is the teacher a social revolutionary who fosters the revolutionary conscience in both student and self, a la Paolo Friere in Pedagogy of the Oppressed?
So far, three things should be clear. First, coherent answers conflict—at least, much of the time. It might be possible to hold both that education is for social efficiency and also that it is for creating loyal citizens, but not that education is about creating a revolutionary conscience along Marxist structural lines and also about generating an expressive Self without outside referents.
Second, it is easy for misalignments to occur between means and ends, and also between stakeholders. To the first: we might agree that education is for “fitness for contemporary life” (Herbert Spencer’s phrase), but disagree about whether that requires a liberal arts education or more practical, useful subjects—a disagreement that occurred in the late 19th century. To the second: parents might believe that a rigorous, academic curriculum fosters social mobility, but their children’s teachers might privilege social adjustment above Latin and literature— a disagreement that occurred throughout the 20th century.2
Third, most of the time, North Americans—in particular those from the United States—are blissfully unaware of the deep levels of commitment that undergird textbooks, teacher training, and even whole education systems. In the United States, at least, there is widespread agreement that the education system is failing, particularly for children who are most at risk socially and economically. There are noble efforts to offer alternatives (charters, vouchers) and to enforce some kind of accountability, however imperfect (standardized testing). However, because these reforms fail to address the intellectual infrastructure—beliefs, commitments, and choices—that supports American education, they are of limited scope.
In fact, most U.S. citizens continue to think of their public schools as somehow ideologically neutral. This is simply inaccurate. Education, like all human endeavours, is shot through with belief and longing, with affirmations about what matters and what does not. Everything from whether children wear uniforms, to how administrators manage discipline, to which questions are asked and which are omitted, is instructive.3 What we need is clarity on what is being claimed and why, what we think about these claims, and what to do about disagreement at the teleological and ontological level.
Which takes us to the last question of educational philosophy, and it is essentially political philosophy: Who decides? When honest brokers disagree, who adjudicates? A good society in the twenty-first century must, it seems to me, find a way to embrace educational pluralism. That is, the State should establish certain standards which even strong disagreement may not overrule. These could include compulsory education up to age sixteen or seventeen; a strong curriculum that insures literacy and numeracy in the early years and that builds up the intellectual, emotional, physical, and even spiritual sensibilities of every child until graduation; a plan to sponsor individual interests, particularly at the upper grade levels; an agreement to promote civic and moral duty; the provision of adequate facilities and staff training across the system. Each of these components, of course, deserves its own essay!4
However, within a simple and agreed-upon framework, the good society will allow for meaningful differences in the way parents and educators may construct the atmosphere and pedagogy of their children’s schools. Anything less runs the risk of disrespecting the most deeply held convictions about what makes life meaningful and why, who we are and what we need as human beings, and where our ultimate loyalty lies. The political philosophy most amicable to educational pluralism is a civil society model—the least amicable is a statecontrol model. Both are set out beautifully in Charles Glenn’s Contrasting Models of State and School: A Comparative Historical Study of Parental Choice and State Control (2011); I shall not rehash his key arguments here.
The international community supports educational pluralism—theoretically, anyway. Article 13 in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, adopted by the UN in 1966, recognizes the rights of the State to regulate education and also affirms the right of parents to “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions,” as does the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). Some American constitutional scholars find such covenants and principles compelling food-for- educational-thought;5 liberal democracies accomplish this to varying levels of success.6
At the “most successful” end of the spectrum, we find the Netherlands, which is the freest nation with respect to education. Its government funds, on equal footing, over thirty different types of religious, ideological, and pedagogical schools while requiring certain academic standards and bureaucratic oversight. Dutch citizens can create Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Waldorf and Dalton schools (to name a few), staff them with like-minded teachers and supply materials that comport with their principles. At the same time, these schools work together to solve issues of social justice, such as that of reducing ethnic segregation or assimilating immigrants.
At the “least successful” end of the spectrum, we find the United States, whose educational system assumes that only a state-enforced uniform education can make one people out of many (e pluribus unum). Canada, whose provinces fund, to varying degrees, the linguistic and religious preferences of the parents, is closer to a civil society model—but could, no doubt, move further in that direction.
What makes the civil society model so compelling to me, and what seems to commend it to the “good society,” is its clear acknowledgement of meaningful distinctions between competing truth claims. If no classroom can be neutral, then surely parents and educators must have the space to articulate their own views, to find points of commonality with others, and to compare pedagogies that play out in concrete ways. Educators can make mistakes without affecting whole systems. Religious groups can form educational alliances, as Muslim and Catholic educators often do across Europe. Organizations and faith communities can go through waves of retreat and revival. Of note here is the resurgence of religious education in England.7 Jewish day schools have enjoyed a twenty-year renaissance, with the percentage of Jewish children in such schools having gone from twenty per cent to nearly seventy per cent.8 Anglicans have determined to enhance the distinctiveness of their schools, with think tanks such as Theos producing strong, clear, reflective essays on Christian education in a plural community.9
Educational pluralism is disconcerting, because by it we are agreeing that other parents may school their children in a model that we find off-putting, irrelevant, or even potentially dangerous. Educational pluralism also assumes that democratic sensibilities are actually enhanced, not diminished, by encouraging a variety of school types.10 Educational pluralism requires flexibility, social negotiation, and grace within a broad vision of the common good.
Taking all of this together, then, educational pluralism seems a necessary component of the good society. Anything less fails to affirm—or even acknowledge— that all human behaviour and institutions are about commitment to our visions of the good, the true, and the beautiful. The good society should make space for conflicting ideals within the parameters of civic accountability.