Philosophy of Education: Essays and Commentaries

By Hobert W. Burns; Charles J. Brauner | Go to book overview
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Should We Meet the Needs of Students?

B. Paul Komisar*


The weight of evidence, I will try to show, clearly indicates the time has come to dispense with the concept of need in serious discussions of educational policy and theory. Of course the term can continue to claim some utility in the informal day-by-day practice of education. That is, there is no reason for outlawing such "on the job" assertions as "He needs another pencil." But as a central concept in formal talk about education, the concept of need is expendable. It confuses rather than clarifies, and it conceals serious issues while flourishing innocuous ones.

This view of the matter seems not to be universal among educationists. There are still many who refer to a "needs-curriculum" and describe the schools' task as "meeting the needs of youth." The Evaluative Criteria, one of the most commonly employed set of standards for appraising school performance, is saturated with the language of "need." Thus, there are sufficient grounds for looking again at the concept and surveying some of the grosser consequences of its continued use in educational discussion.1


Actually, there is more than one concept of need. As others have noted, the term is equivocal. That there is a motivational concept of need, comes as no surprise to those in education. We say that students have a need for something and mean that the students presently want it or are disposed to want it from time to time when the appropriate provocation arises. Alleged needs for dominance, affection, security or even competence are instances of the motivational concept.

There is also, in education, another meaning of "need." It should be mentioned here although it appears to be a degenerate case of the other meanings. It is the concept of need as a state of lack, as a claim that some specified condition is absent. I do not plan to make further use of this meaning.

There is a third, a prescriptive concept of need which should not be confused with either of these. When we say of an unruly child "He needs discipline," we are not reporting or presupposing that the child now feels a keen desire for discipline. Nor are we

Unpublished manuscript. The analysis is based on the author's "The Pedagogical Concept of Need," Essays in the Language of Education, eds. B. O. Smith and R. H. Ennis ( Chicago: Rand McNally & Co., 1961).
See almost any standard book on school curriculum and educational psychology; Evaluative Criteria (Cooperative Study of Secondary School Standards, Washington 6, D.C.); N.E.A. Code of Ethics, First Principle, Section 2; and Planning for American Youth ( Washington, D.C.: National Association of Secondary-School Principles, 1951), p. 9.
See the analysis in Paul W. Taylor, "Need Statements," Analysis, XIX ( April, 1959), 106-111.


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