The Meaning of the Concept of Education: Searching for the Lost Arc

By Marshall, James D. | Journal of Thought, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

The Meaning of the Concept of Education: Searching for the Lost Arc


Marshall, James D., Journal of Thought


A Brief History into Definition and Meaning

Since at least the times of Plato, there have been many attempts by educators, bureaucrats, ideologues and philosophers to define the concept of education. For example, early in the 20th century in North America there were attempts to define "education" in terms of "vocationalism." Philosopher of education, John Dewey, who was opposed to the vocational movement, responded to this notion of education in his Democracy and Education (1916, 3):

   Society exists through a process of transmission quite as much as
   biological life ... (which) ... occurs by means of communication of
   habits of doing, thinking and feeling from the older to the
   younger ... Without this communication of ideals, hopes,
   expectations, standards, opinions ... social life could not
   survive ... (education) is a work of necessity.

Dewey was opposed to education merely for work, though work was important. He notes (1916, 307) that there are many occupations in life, only one of which is a vocation:

   No one is just an artist and nothing else, and so far as one
   approximates that condition, he is so much the less developed
   human being; he is a kind of monstrosity. He must, at some period
   of his life, be a member of a family; he must have friends and
   companions; he must either support himself or be supported by
   others ... a member of a political group ... we should not allow
   ourselves ... to ignore and virtually deny his other callings when
   it comes to a consideration of the vocational aspects of education.

A mere training for work would ignore the communication of ideals, hopes, expectations, standards, and other opinions and thus undermine social life, and perhaps permit a lapse into barbarity. Yet if work was important for Dewey it was not a substitute for education.

In Great Britain Richard Peters armed with the "new" tools of analytic and linguistic philosophy analyzed the concept of education in several sources. The best known is Ethics and Education (1956). According to Peters, the logically necessary conditions for 'education' were:

(1) that it was concerned with the transmission of knowledge;

(2) which was worthwhile, and in which;

(3) the transmission of knowledge was done in a morally appropriate manner.

Each of these conditions was considered as necessary by Peters. They could not be merely contingent and, therefore, not present in a correct application of the concept. Taken jointly then they were said to be a definition of the concept of education.

In philosophy of education, budding analytic philosophers of education were presented with, and took at least these two opportunities:

(A) to challenge this analysis by raising questions about it, such as what was meant by 'worthwhile,' and was a condition merely contingent and not always needed, and;

(B) to extend the analysis, magpie fashion, to other educational concepts such as needs, interests, and teaching.

Peters' analysis was strongly challenged, for example, in a seminar at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in 1965 (Peters 1973). He was challenged by a number of able philosophers, such as W.H. Dray, R.G. Woods, P. Herbst, and Israel Scheffler. Not only did they provide A-type challenges (above) for Peters' account of education, but it was suggested and argued, he had not analyzed the concept of education at all. Instead what he had analyzed was the concept of liberal education. Peters almost conceded this point. However it raises the issue that education is a fundamental liberal concept (as opposed to narrow vocational training, say).

Liberalism appeals to a number of concepts such as freedom and equality. But these are fundamentally contested concepts. Do we mean by "freedom," freedom from X, or do we mean freedom from X to do Y? Do we mean by "equality" in education, "equal access," "equal treatment" or "equality of opportunity," for example? …

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