Academic journal article American Educational History Journal

Why Do We Need a Philosophy of Education? the Forgotten Insights of Michael John Demiashkevich

Academic journal article American Educational History Journal

Why Do We Need a Philosophy of Education? the Forgotten Insights of Michael John Demiashkevich

Article excerpt

We often hear that American public schools are in need of change, that we need to seal up the achievement gap without further ado, that we must raise our ranking among nations if we want to survive in a global economy. We see evidence of the low intellectual level of American youth: their inability to write a coherent sentence or paragraph, their limited vocabulary, their ignorance of history, literature, science, and mathematics. Almost no one disputes the need for change; in fact change has become an end in itself. Policymakers across the ideological spectrum vie for the title of "reformer," dismissing their opponents as members of the "status quo." But if you asked these very policymakers, as well as parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, journalists, and the general public, just what they hoped to reform, you would likely get an array of answers. Most would say we need higher achievement--but achievement of what? Some might say "higher test scores"; others, "21st century skills." Some call for "critical thinking"; others, "a foundation in the liberal arts and sciences"; still others, "basic literacy and numeracy." There is no consensus over educational goals. William C. Bagley remarked in 1934 that "American education has long been befuddled by the multiplication of 'aims' and 'objectives'" (Bagley 1934, 120); nearly eighty years later, Chester E. Finn Jr. wrote that "there is simply no unity--or even a broad coalition--built around a shared view of ends or means" (Finn 2010, 72).

For many decades, our schools have been mired in jargon and confused values. A few exceptional books--such as Education and Emergent Man by William C. Bagley (1934), The Cult of Uncertainty by Isaac L. Kandel (1943), Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter (1962), and Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform by Diane Ravitch (2000) (1)--have shown the way through the thicket of educational ideas, policies, and practices. The work of Michael John Demiashkevich belongs to this set and offers a special philosophical perspective. In An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1935), as well as other writings, Demiashkevich argues for a dualist conception of education: one that recognizes both permanence and change; both the recorded experience of the ages and direct experience; both the realm of ideas and the realm of matter. Demiashkevich shows that it is impossible to arrive at such combinations--or to understand how they might work--without first identifying one's philosophy of education and understanding its legacy.

Demiashkevich criticized the dominant education movement of his time, the "New Education" of the early twentieth century, for its overwhelming emphasis on change. The New Education was far from new; John Dewey was its immediate founder, but the ideas could be traced to ancient Greece. Based on the idea that the school should adapt continually to the needs of the child and society, the New Education had roots in the materialism of Democritus, with later expressions in the educational philosophy of Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel.

Champions of the New Education argued that education must be true to life and therefore should form around children's interests, inclinations, and desires. Under the New Education, according to Dewey, "the child becomes the sun about which the appliances of education revolve; he is the center about which they are organized" (Dewey 1900, 51). Dewey did not discount the importance of subject matter, but he insisted that it be taught in a manner that mirrored life. His contemporaries seized upon this idea. William Heard Kilpatrick became famous for his "project method," in which school procedures should revolve around "wholehearted purposeful activity" (Kilpatrick 1918). Harold Rugg and Ann Shumaker wrote that "The new school... desiring that the initiative to learn shall come from the child himself, organizes its units of work around the interest of children themselves. …

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