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01/05/2013

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The word ‘education’ may be derived from one of two Latin words,

or perhaps from both. These are educere, which means ‘to lead out’ or

‘to train’, and educare which means ‘to train’ or ‘to nourish’. Whilst

the derivation of the word matters not at all for any modern sub-

stantive debate concerning education, it seems fitting that a concept

that seems to lend itself to persuasive definitions, that is, definitions

that smuggle in preferred meanings under the guise of objective

analysis, should have an ambiguous and uncertain derivation.

In American philosophy of education there has actually been little

work done on the meaning of this concept as compared to, say,

teaching. However, in Britain educational discussion both within

and without philosophy of education was focused upon teasing out

the meaning of education. This was because philosophy of education

in Britain was dominated for twenty years – one is tempted to say

created – by the work of one man, Richard Peters, and Peters’ work

was largely driven by his analysis of the concept of education. His

first – and enormously influential – book on the subject, Ethics and

Education (1966), spends its first third on this issue. Central to his

analysis here were three complex criteria which he sees as enabling us

to map the distinction between ‘education’ and other human pursuits.

The first criterion is that ‘education’, in its full sense, has a neces-

sary implication that something valuable or worthwhile is going on.

There may be secondary senses, for example, an anthropological

sense where we refer to, say, ‘Spartan education’ or a sense where we

wish to repudiate a certain set of practices, for example ‘she had a

rotten education’, where use of the term does not imply commen-

dation, but in its primary sense it must; it would involve a contra-

diction to say that someone had been educated but that they had not

changed for the better. But this value that Peters sees as necessarily

EDUCATION

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involved in education must not be thought of as instrumentally con-

nected to the practices of education. Education is not valuable as a

means to a valuable end such as a good job, but rather because it

involves those being educated being initiated into activities which are

worthwhile in themselves, that is, are intrinsically valuable. In a

momentous – but much misunderstood – distinction, Peters contrasts

training, which carries with it the ideas of limited application and an

external goal, that is, one is trained in something for some external

purpose, with ‘education’, which implies neither of these things.

Second, ‘education’ involves the acquisition of a body of knowl-

edge and understanding which surpasses mere skill, know-how or the

collection of information. Such knowledge and understanding must

involve the principles which underlie skills, procedural knowledge

and information, and must transform the life of the person being

educated both in terms of his general outlook and in terms of his

becoming committed to the standards inherent in the areas of his

education. To this body of knowledge and understanding must be

added a ‘cognitive perspective’ whereby the development of any

specialism, for example in science, is seen in the context of the place

of this specialism in a coherent pattern of life.

Third, the processes of education involve at least some under-

standing of what is being learned and what is required in the learning,

for example so we could not be ‘brainwashed’ or ‘conditioned’ into

education, and some minimal voluntary participation in such processes.

The world into which those being educated are being initiated into

is one with cognition at its heart – although Peters makes it clear here

(1966: 48–49) and elsewhere (1973) that he sees cognition as having

necessary links to other capacities of mind, for example, concerned

with character development and emotions – but it is also a public

world, for the structures of cognition are, by and large, those struc-

tures of thought and awareness which are contained within modes of

thought such as science, history, mathematics, aesthetic awareness,

which the initiate inherits from past ages.

And it is within this world that the question of worthwhileness

which is raised by Peters’ first criterion gets answered. There, Peters

drew a distinction between activities that are extrinsically worth-

while, that is, valuable because they lead on to some other valuable

end, and those that are intrinsically worthwhile, that is, valuable in

and for themselves, with education securely tied to the latter. But it

also turns out, according to Peters, that such activities can be justified

as ‘educational’ activities because it is only in the context of activities

such as science, literary appreciation, history, philosophy, that the

EDUCATION

64

question of the justification of educational activities can be asked and

answered. Thus Peters’ ultimate argument for the content of educa-

tion is a transcendental deduction from those pursuits and

activities which, according to him, must be presupposed in asking

and answering the question ‘Why do this rather than that?’ – for

example, those activities presupposed by the process of justification

as such.

After the appearance of Ethics and Education, Peters’ approach to

the concept of ‘education’ became, in different ways, a main focus of

debate within the philosophy of education. Often those who turned

their gaze on his analysis were critical of his approach. Sometimes this

was upon methodological grounds: for example, he was accused of

presenting prescriptions for education as if they were part of the

description of the concept itself (or, at the very least, of accepting, in

an uncritical manner, prescriptions built into a particular version of

the concept) (Dray 1967; Edel 1973; Frankena 1970; Woods 1967);

sometimes, he was accused of ignoring societal factors in his account

and thereby offering an account of ‘education’ that was at best con-

servative and at worst reactionary (Adelstein 1972; K. Harris 1979).

What was notable, however, was the way in which critical com-

mentators, whether they were on the whole sympathetic or hostile to

the Peters agenda (Kleinig 1982; Woods and Barrow 1975), tended to

seem to be tinkering with the individual items of his analysis whilst

accepting much of the structure.

Probably the central criticism of the analysis presented in Ethics and

Education is that it tries to do far too much with far too few resour-

ces: it seems unlikely that it is possible to answer all the questions that

Peters claims to answer with the machinery on offer. Peters seems to

have reached this conclusion himself, and in the years following the

publication of Ethics and Education he conducted a fighting retreat

from his initial position. In ‘Education and the Educated Man’

(1970b) he accepted that the notion of ‘education’ that he was

defending was a historically located one and that it encapsulated

values which simply could not be derived from conceptual analysis.

He also corrected some of the misunderstandings that had resulted

from his distinction between ‘education’ and ‘training’. In the ‘Justi-

fication of Education’ he returned to the account of justification

offered in his previous work (Peters 1973) but his attempt to recast

this account simply succeeded in further revealing its weaknesses

(Hirst 1986). In two later papers, ‘Ambiguities in Liberal Education

and the Problem of Its Content’ (1977) and ‘Democratic Values and

Educational Aims’ (1979), he seemed to abandon the formal purity of

EDUCATION

65

his earlier account in attempts to locate the practices of education

solidly within some understanding – however general – of the social

world.

It is not generally appreciated just how deeply Peters’ position had

changed. He comes to recognize the contested nature of substantive

definitions of education such as his own earlier ones. He distinguishes

between a ‘thin’ analytical concept of education, which involves

preparation for life through the learning of something worthwhile,

and ‘thicker’ concepts which involve substantive values and orienta-

tions towards particular kinds of lives. He thus allows for the possi-

bility of vocational education which is broadly based and which

might invove substantial elements of training. He accepts that dif-

ferent groups within a society may have differing legitimate concep-

tions of education and that liberal education, as he had originally

thought of it, is just one of these. This revised analysis of the concept

of education has not, however, received the discussion that it

deserves, and it is quite common to see Peters’ work still discussed in

terms of the earlier, better known, liberal conception (see Carr

2003b). Philosophers of education owe many debts to Peters’ work.

And one of these debts is an awareness of the types of argument to be

avoided if at all possible. Peters’ work has shown that an approach to

education which simply relies upon analysis to solve substantive

educational questions is unlikely to bear any real educational fruit. He

has also shown that trying to answer too many questions at once runs

the considerable risk of giving too many hostages to fortune.

Recent work within the field has taken these lessons to heart and is

noteworthy for offering minimalist – and therefore minimally con-

troversial – definitions of ‘education’. J. P White (1982: ch. 1) simply

defines it as ‘upbringing’ whilst C. Winch (1996: ch. 2) offers

something like ‘a preparation for adult life’. In being so seemingly

unambitious in the matter of definition both writers avoid some of

the hazards which Peters encountered: first, they may engage in the

substantive debates concerning education, for example with regard to

the content of the curriculum, without being accused of covertly

smuggling in their own answers from the outset. Second, because the

elements of their arguments do not depend upon one central – and

disputed – move, they run less risk of the whole edifice falling if one

element is found faulty.

If this seems a small heritage from twenty years of debate it should

be remembered that philosophy of education as it is in Britain would

not exist but for Peters’ work, and that his ideas led to profound

changes in the British education system at every level.

EDUCATION

66

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