A Philosophy of Education


What is the purpose of education? If you are like most people you probably answer something like "to prepare children to get a job" or "to teach children the skills they need in their lives." You probably think of the purpose of education to be the teaching of the famous "3 Rs" - Reading wRiting and aRithmatic. This is not what philosophers think of an the primary goal. Neither is it the prime goal of many government officials. For many school administrators or professional educators there are other purposes more important than the 3 Rs. If this comes as a surprise to you then you are not alone. It came as a surprise to me when I first started to outline my own philosophy of education.

The importance of a philosophy of education is that it defines the purpose and focus of an educational institution. It becomes a part of its mission statement which in turn defines what subjects are taught, how they are taught and, perhaps more importantly, the values that are taught both implicitly and explicitly along with the subjects being covered.

The purpose of education, as described by philosophers, is generally considered to be the reproduction of a culture. This can take several forms. In a conservative environment, it can mean the maintenance of the status quo. In a more liberal environment it means the teaching of values that are considered to be desirable. In effect, the schools serve to create a culture and mores that are not currently part of the culture but are perceived as desirable. in any case, it means that the values taught are those of the church, government, or other system that controls the schools. History tells us that totalitarian governments quickly take over the education system when they come to power. This was seen in communist countries and fascist countries alike. If revolutionaries can not control the education system they destroy it. Cambodia for example. Or the actions of the Viet Cong before their victory.

There is an old proverb that says "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world." While it is certainly true that most children get most of their values from their parents (the hand that rocks the cradle) they also get much from their teachers. Teachers, especially in a society that hands off much of the child raising responsibility to schools, get to do their share of cradle rocking. It is also true that what a school teaches may either support or undermine what parents teach at home.

Whether intended or unintended, schools serve to reproduce a culture. Education is a critical part of a child's socialization. It is where they learn not just the obvious tools for life but the cultural mores, values and social tools for life. The question I choose to address is who is responsible for determining the sort of training students receive in school.

There are two common beliefs about who should be responsible for the education of children. One is that it is the parents responsibility. The other is the it is governments responsibility.

The logic behind government responsibility is that the state needs an educated population to be successful. The nature of that education depends on the governments idea of success. Naturally the education driven by government includes a set of values that serve to enhance the likelihood of the government remaining the government. Individuals who support a government, especially is support for the government is present in any substantial way, tend to be highly supportive of this philosophy. It is also a quite useful belief if one is interested in the government funding education. To say that society requires an educated population to complete in the world economy is hardly disputable. Nor can one easily dismiss the notion that it is governments responsibility to ensure that all people have equal access to a good education. This strikes to the fairy heart of most concepts of fairness. To say nothing of the desires of most people to get someone else to pay for things.

Totalitarian governments have long been advocates of total government control of education. This is quite understandable as, by their nature, totalitarian governments require control of their citizens in mental as well as physical ways. Beyond that, totalitarian governments espouse a philosophy that citizens belong to the government. This implies a right to control thought and education of students.

Government control, especially over parental control, of education is also a popular philosophy among liberal democrats (small 'd' is deliberate as I refer to a philosophy not a political party). Here though we see, thankfully, the rejection of the citizen as property of the state. We do hear sentiments such as "education is too important to be left in the hands of parents." as well as a generally paternalist attitude toward education.

In the United States, opponents of increased parental control of education - through the use of public funds for private education for example - often highlights social projects such as anti discrimination as being programs that parental control might diminish. Society has a right and obligation to right the wrongs that exist in a society and this is presented as a higher responsibility then parental freedom. After all, we are told, people should not be forced to pay for values that they do not believe in. This does not ignore the fact that parents who disapprove of public education are forced to pay for it none the less. Rather the argument is that in a democratic system all must fund the majority opinion.

The second philosophy is that parents have the responsibility for education is based loosely on the concept that children belong to their parents. Given this philosophy parents clearly have the right to decide on their children's education. Responsibility for doing so is less clearly declared however. Most parents accept some responsibility for our children as a matter of course. Some parents take that responsibility more or less strongly then others. For me, as I was taught by my fathers example, I am responsible for providing the best education I can afford. If this means sacrifice so be it. For other parents, their responsibility, as they accept it, means doing no more or less then the law requires. This then gets to the heart of my philosophy. Shared responsibly.

I believe that parents have the right to decide what values and what culture their children are raised to accept as valid. I also believe that for a states own good, the state has a responsibility to held fund the parents educational choices. However, one problem in American society is the new Golden Rule. "He who has the gold makes the rules. This is never more a problem then in education. In education what this rule means is that the government is unwilling to fund any but its own choices. This is the heart and soul behind most objections to voucher systems and other means of using public funds for private schools.

I believe that in a democratic society, government run schools are inherently counter democratic. By counter democratic I mean that they work against the idea of democracy. Democracy implies freedom of thought. It implies a diversity of opinion and the competition of ideas for acceptance. Government run schools by their nature force a single way of looking at issues. While some diversity sneaks its way in from home or from the community the students live in general there is a single way that is taught, be it implicitly or explicitly. Even in areas where the schools are controlled locally, by a town or group of towns, there is a majority view which is the norm in the schools. Further, in most countries including the United States, there are some norms or values that are explicitly either required or official excluded. For example, one can not teach students how to pray in a public school. Nor can a teacher pray with them. At best, this teaches students that prayer is not valued. At worst, it teaches that prayer is bad.

Thus a government run school by its very nature restrict the number and type of opinions that are propagated in its society. The government also clearly ignores the parents rights to choice an education that they believe is appropriate. In place of the parents beliefs, the government run school teaches a common set of beliefs that reinforce its, the governments, dominance as the accepted form of government.

Nothing here should be in any way taken to suggest that democracy as practiced in the United States is not a great form of government. To me it is the best form existing today. On the other hand, restricting differing views almost guaranties that it can not improve. If ideas and thought patterns are limited to those already generally acceptable where is innovation and improvement to come from?

What then is the ideal? The ideal for a democratic society is that the government refrain from running schools except in cases of dire necessity. The ideal is that all schools are privately own and run. This provides the greatest opportunity for diversity of thought, teaching atmosphere, and parental choice. Parents, having brought children into the world, have a right in proportion to their responsibility to determine the nature of their children's education.

On the other hand, funding of education is beyond the ability of many parents. The government has a responsibility to help provide an education for its citizens. A democratic government requires, for its success, that it citizens be educated well enough to understand what is happening. They must understand what candidates are trying to "sell", they must understand what their government is doing, and they must understand how their government works. Thus the government has a responsibility to make sure that education is available to the whole population. Beyond that, the government is dependent on its citizens taxes for its funding. An educated population is more able to compete on a global basis and to afford the taxes the government requires. Government has a financial as well as moral stake in the education of its citizens.

This is where the new Golden Rule comes in to complicate matters. The government, like a person, tends to want to exercise close control over the money it expends. In a totalitarian system this is to be expected and must be accepted. In a democracy, education must be largely exempt from this control. Control must be minimal and exerted only to the extent absolutely necessary to protect children from harm and their parents from fraud.


Copyright Alfred C Thompson II 2007