Philosophy of Education: An Example of Applied Philosophy

By Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

Applied philosophy involves the application of philosophical principles and concepts to the practical affairs of the human condition. Philosophers have written widely on such topics as science, law, politics, religion, history, and education. They have sought to have an influence on the definitions, ideas, methods, and theories of these human pursuits. In this essay we will take a brief look at one example of applied philosophy and illustrate how general philosophical principles and concepts come into play. The example we will use is philosophy of education.

Philosophers of education have approached their subject in many different ways. One course may restrict itself to studying a single philosophy of education, while another course may be a survey of the various philosophies that have been presented, with an eye to discovering their similarities and differences. Since we are only interested in considering philosophy of education as an example of applied philosophy, we will take the latter view for a starting point.

Within American education, many philosophers have identified at least three broad philosophies of education: Essentialism, Perennialism, and Experimentalism. Essentialism has sometimes been further divided into Idealism and Realism, and Experimentalism has been divided into Progressivism and Reconstructionism. Additionally, some philosophers of education recognize an Existentialist approach to education as well. This latter philosophy of education will be ignored here because I don’t think it has matured into a consistent and influential philosophy of education at this time.

Now, just because philosophers of education have formulated a few categories of educational philosophies does not mean that one or more of these philosophies can be said to “the” philosophy of education which prevails in American schools. The fact of the matter is, I suspect, that in the real world of American schooling, no one philosophy of education is really dominant and our education system is rather eclectic, borrowing something from each of the differing philosophies. It is true that the philosophy of education called Experimentalism (in both its Progressivist and Reconstructionist varieties) has had a profound influence on the direction of American education for most of the early days of the twentieth century, but its influence has been tempered by the traditional views of Essentialism and Perennialism.

The academic discipline known as philosophy of education deals with what I call third-order questions or problems. Third-order questions are the province of an applied philosophy. First-order questions (such as What is real? What is truth? What is man?) are fundamentally metaphysical and epistemological questions and lay the foundation for the development of normative philosophy, which asks what I call second-order questions (such as What is good? What is beauty? What is the best way to organize society?). Disciplines which deal with third-order questions (philosophy of law, philosophy of science, etc.) are dependent on the principles and concepts formulated within descriptive philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology) and normative philosophy (axiology, ethics, politics, aesthetics).

What sort of questions and problems does philosophy of education deal with as a member of the category known as applied philosophy? Let me just mention a few general ones with the understanding that more detailed questions are possible but not essential for our purposes in this essay. Let me, then, ask four general questions which are important to the philosopher of education. The first question asks: How should American culture support and control education? The second question asks: How and what should our young people learn? The third question asks: How much and what kinds of academic freedom can we justify? And, finally, the fourth question asks: How should the community be related to the school?

How one answers these four general questions usually provides a clue as to which philosophy of education is most acceptable to the respondent. Furthermore, since these third-order questions are directly related to first- and second-order questions, an acute observer can probably determine what sort of general philosophy is subscribed to by the respondent; for example, whether one is a metaphysical idealist or a metaphysical realist, and whether one is an epistemological subjectivist or objectivist, and where one ought to stand on ethical and political issues.

Keep in mind, however, that people are rarely consistent in their philosophic beliefs and all we can really say is that if they accept certain basic principles and concepts as “true,” they ought to then accept the secondary and tertiary principles and concepts which follow from them as “true.” This is not usually the case unless one has spent a great of time “checking one’s premises,” as Ayn Rand has said on so many occasions. A consistent and coherent philosophy of life, in any total sense, is very difficult to achieve and most of us are subject to mistakes, inconsistencies, and so forth, as well as being influenced by our emotions and present circumstances.

Keeping in mind what has been said above, let me now briefly sketch out what sort of philosophy of education would most likely be acceptable to a person who held certain general philosophical principles and concepts, using the categories of Idealism, Realism, Perennialism, and Experimentalism as a guide.

The Idealist believes in a world of Mind (metaphysics) and in truth as Idea (epistemology). Furthermore, ethics is the imitation of the Absolute Self and aesthetics is the reflection of the Ideal. From this very general philosophical position, the Idealist would tend to view the Learner as a microscopic mind, the Teacher as a paradigmatic self, the Curriculum as the subject matter of symbol and idea (emphasizing literature, history, etc.), the Teaching Method as absorbing Ideas, and the Social Policy of the school as conserving the heritage of Western civilization.

The Realist believes in a world of Things or Beings (metaphysics) and in truth as an Observable Fact. Furthermore, ethics is the law of nature or Natural Law and aesthetics is the reflection of Nature. From this very general philosophical position, the Realist would tend to view the Learner as a sense mechanism, the Teacher as a demonstrator, the Curriculum as the subject matter of the physical world (emphasizing mathematics, science, etc.), the Teaching Method as mastering facts and information, and the Social Policy of the school as transmitting the settled knowledge of Western civilization.

The Perennialist will generally fall into one of two camps, secular or theistic. The differences between these two camps are small but significant.

The secular Perennialist believes in a world of Reason (metaphysics) and in truth as Reason. Furthermore, ethics is the Rational Act and aesthetics is a matter of Creative Intuition. From this very general philosophical position, the secular Perennialist would tend to view the Learner as a rational being, the Teacher as a mental disciplinarian, the Curriculum as the subject matter of the intellect and spirit (mathematics, languages, logic, Great Books, etc.), the Teaching Method as training the intellect, and the Social Policy as transmitting the great ideas of Western civilization.

The theistic Perennialist believes in a world of Reason, Being, and God (metaphysics) and in truth as Reason and Intuition. Furthermore, ethics is the Rational Act and aesthetics is a matter of Creative Intuition. From this very general philosophical position, the secular Perennialist would tend to view the Learner as a rational and spiritual being, the Teacher as a mental disciplinarian and spiritual leader, the Curriculum as the subject matter of the intellect and spirit (mathematics, languages, logic, Great Books, Dogma, etc.), the Teaching Method as training the intellect, and the Social Policy as transmitting the great ideas, both secular and religious, of Western civilization.

The Experimentalist (adhering to progressivism or reconstructionism) believes in a world of Experience (metaphysics) and in truth as What Works (pragmatism). Furthermore, ethics is a matter of the Public Test (moral relativism) and aesthetics is a matter of Public Taste. From this very general philosophical position, the Experimentalist, Progressivist, or Reconstructionist would tend to view the Learner as an experiencing organism, the Teacher as a research-project director, the Curriculum as the subject matter of social experience (emphasizing social studies, projects, problems, etc.), the Teaching Method as problem-solving, and the Social Policy as teaching how to manage change or, in the Reconstructionist position, as teaching how to reconstruct the social order.

A few more educational implications may be drawn in regard to the philosophies of education noted above.

When it comes to specific methods of teaching, the Idealist tends to promote the lecture and discussion method, the Realist tends to favor demonstration and recitation, the Perennialist likes the lecture, the controlled discussion, and formal drill and, in the case of the theistic Perennialist, “readying the spirit” and the catechetical method, and the Experimentalist or Progressivist or Reconstructionist much prefers the group problem-solving-project methodology.

Regarding character education, the Idealist supports the imitating of exemplars and heroes, the Realist prefers training in rules of conduct, the Perennialist tends to promote the disciplining of behavior to reason, while the Experimentalist, Progressivist, and Reconstructionist insist on promoting character education by making group decisions in the light of the consequences of those decisions.

Finally, when it comes to developing taste, the Idealist would teach good taste by studying the masterworks of civilization, the Realist would do so by studying design in nature, the Perennialist by finding beauty in reason, and the Experimentalist, Progressivist, and Reconstructionist by having students participate in art projects.

You may now ask: Which of the above philosophies of education actually represents the true picture of education in today’s America? I would have to answer: “None of them.” We have, as I have tried to indicate before, an “eclectic” philosophy of education in actual practice. At various times in the history of the American school, one of the above philosophies has attained a major influence on practice and policy, only to be supplanted by the ascendance of another one, and then that one dimmed in influence, and one of the other ones became temporarily dominant. We have, it seems to me, always been in the throes of a changing educational philosophy.

Some influences do stand out, however. In the early days of our republic, Idealism and Realism were the major influences, with the exception of parochial schools which were influenced by theistic Perennialism. In the early part of the twentieth century, Experimentalism and Progressivism were widely promoted and accepted. Later, that form of Experimentalism called Reconstructionism became a major influence on the public school, especially after World War II. When this philosophy failed to live up to expectations, there was an attempt by the Realists and the secular Perennialists to change the educational philosophy of the American school. But, all in all, the major influence has been an eclectic one with no single overriding influence. The contemporary American school presently has no genuine consistent educational philosophy, with the rare exception of private schools here and there who have retained their intellectual independence.

The above essay was written, not to promote any particular educational philosophy, but to illustrate how the discipline of philosophy of education functions as applied philosophy. I also hope that the reader takes away a sense of the importance of the study of philosophy of education and, for that matter, the importance of studying all the various branches of applied philosophy. While I can accept in the abstract that “knowledge for the sake of knowledge” may be a laudable goal, the fact is that we live in the concrete, not the abstract, and the studies involved in applied philosophy are essential to understanding and improving the human condition.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.