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Education during the Age of Empire

Positivist pedagogy consolidated Bourgeoisies conception of education. In the context of

the Enlightenment and the Bourgeois society, two antagonist forces had their origin in the late 18th
C: the socialist and popular movement and the elitist Bourgeoisie. In the 19th C these were to be
known as Marxism and Positivism. Their major exponents were Karl Marx (1818-1883) and
Augusto Comte (1798-1857).
In his Course on Positive Philosophy, Comte explains that in its development, humanity
passes through three successive stages: the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive. The
first is the necessary starting point for the human mind; the last, its normal state; the second is but
a transitory stage that makes possible the passage from the first to the last. In the theological
stage, the human mind, in its search for the primary and final causes of phenomena, explains the
apparent anomalies in the universe as interventions of supernatural agents. In the second stage
the questions remain the same, but in the answers supernatural agents are replaced by abstract
entities. In the positive state, the mind stops looking for causes of phenomena, and limits itself
strictly to scientific laws governing them.
From this theory of the three states, Comte explained the educational system. He claimed that
every man would reproduce the phases of humanity.
In the first phase which is infancys period, learning is not formal. Learning would gradually
transform the natural fetishism into an abstract conception of the world. In the second phase
which comprises adolescence and youth, man would start studying science systematically.
Eventually, as man matures, he would achieve the positive state. That is, he would overcome the
metaphysical state. He would no longer follow a religion based on an abstract God. He would
profess the religion of the Great Being which is Humanity. Therefore, education would bring about
human solidarity.
Following Comte, Herbert Spencer (1820- 1903) disregarded the religious conception of the
teacher and valued the principle of the scientific instruction in education. He focused on what
should be taught so that the individuals could develop as human beings. He said that what was
taught at school should allow the learners to lead a better life in relation to health, work, family
and society in general.
The scientific tendency of education continued the sensory movement of the previous two
hundred years. However, in practice, the introduction of sciences in the curriculum was gradual.
This introduction resisted the domination of philosophy, theology and classical languages. This
tendency became even more influential in education because of the development of sociology and
educational sociology. Positivism denied the specific methodology of social sciences in relation to
natural sciences.
One of the major exponents of positivist educational sociology was Emile Durkheim (18581917). He thought that education reflected society. He said that education was a social fact. Thus,

pedagogy would be a theory of social practice. He claimed that social facts could be considered as
things. He also stated that society could be compared to an animal: society possesses a system of
different organs in which these have a specific role. Some organs have more privileges than
others. Those natural privileges represent a normal phenomenon. It also occurs in nature when
only the fittest organisms survive.
Those social and pedagogical ideas reflect the conservative and reactionary character of
positivist education. Positivist leaders believed that social and political liberation depended on the
development of science and technology whose control was in the hands of the elites. Therefore,
although positivism was a philosophy because it questioned about what was real and the existing
order, then positivism became an ideology since it tried to answer social issues.
Durkheims theory opposes Rousseaus. Rousseau believed that man was born innately
good but that it was society that corrupted man. On the contrary, Durkheim considered that the
man was born selfish, and just society through education, could make him a good person.
Therefore, according to Durkheim education is the action exercised towards those that are not
ready yet for social life. Its purpose is to challenge and develop in the child a number of physical,
intellectual and moral reaction that are demanded both by the political society in general, and the
specific environment to who it is addressed.
Emile Durkheim saw the major function of education as the transmission of society's norms
and values. He claimed that society can survive only if there exists amongst its members a
sufficient degree of homogeneity; education perpetuates and reinforces this homogeneity by
fixing in the child from the beginning the essential similarities which collective life demands. A vital
task of all societies is the welding of a mass of individuals into a united whole, in other words, the
creation of social solidarity. This involves a commitment to society, a sense of belonging, and a
feeling that the social unit is more important than the individual. Durkheim argued that to become
attached to society, the child must feel in it something that is real, alive and powerful, which
dominates the person and to which he also owns the best part of himself. Education, and in
particular the teaching of history, provides this link between the individual and society. If the
history of their society is brought to life to children, they will come to see that they are part of
something larger than themselves: they will develop a sense of commitment to the social group.

In relation to pedagogy, positivist ideas are closely related to pragmatism that valued what
could be used in the present moment. One of the thinkers who represent pragmatism is Alfred N.
Whitehead (1861-1947). Whitehead considers that the educator must avoid at all costs education
with inert ideas; that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized.
Whitehead insists that the child should be taught few but important ideas, in such a way that he
can make them his own and utilize them in all circumstances of his real life. From the beginning, a
child should experience the joy of discovery. What he should discover is that general ideas help
him understand the course of event throughout his life. Utilizing an idea means relating it to the
compounded of sense perceptions, feelings, hopes, desires and of mental activities adjusting

thought to thought, which forms his life. In brief, Whitehead considers that theoretical ideas
should always find important applications within the curriculum. The central issue of education is
to keep knowledge alive.