I was speaking to a friend who is in construction. He works on finishing houses after the foundation has already been laid. He tells me that he is often called to a job for his part, but he soon realizes that the foundation has not been correctly laid, and he will not be able to finish his work the way he would. The options are to have a sub-par finished house or to go back and relay the foundation. This is an excellent analogy for education. A greater part of our life is spent on education. Do you remember when you were young, and it seemed like school would never end? Today, if you attend K-12 and then undergraduate and graduate school, you may not get out of school until your late 20s. And by then, you may be raising your own kids who are beginning that same education process.
Our Fall Conference is about the foundation for education. What must we do to make sure that we and our students have the correct foundation laid properly so that we can go on to maturity? In this and the next few posts, we will explore some philosophies of education that do not get the foundation in place. The purpose of that is to then be able to contrast these with what it does look like to identify and correctly build the foundation. These posts are a prolegomena, or preparation, for the conference.
Let’s begin with Pragmatism. This is a very recent education philosophy traced to John Dewey, but we will begin with it because of its significant influence. When Universities are advertising, they will often reveal they are pragmatists. This comes out in that they tell the student something: “attend here, and you will get the training you need for the job you want.” University education has been turned into job training. You go to university to get an education to be a doctor, dentist, nurse, lawyer, journalist, teacher, etc.
This philosophy of education contrasts itself with “classical” education in that it prepares its students for the real world and contemporary problems they will face. It argues that what works is what is true. And it claims that it will prepare students to solve problems facing the world and thus do what works. But there’s a problem.
To say that something “works” is to say that it satisfies. And to say that it “satisfies” is an observation about our subjective state. “I am satisfied with this solution.” This subjective observation is about what the subject believes is good. So we get a circle: I believe X is good, this solution works because it gets me X, and what works is true because I believe X is good.
So, truth has been reduced to a subjective state rather than a belief about what is real. Pragmatism in the early 20th century prepared the way for 20th and 21st-century subjectivism. It did not lay the foundation for preparing students to know what is real. It did not teach them critically thinking so that they could identify and critically analyze competing views of what is good (including their own) and from there be able to overcome challenges to the pursuit of what is good.
Next, we will look at the postmodern, critical education.