Academic journal article Adult Learning

Philosophy Is Not a Diagnosis

Academic journal article Adult Learning

Philosophy Is Not a Diagnosis

Article excerpt

Being a pragmatic lot, adult educators often ignore philosophical issues, concentrating instead on what works. When we do discuss philosophy at all, it seems to be in terms of individual ideologies, points of view and theories in action, leaving out many of the more complex issues of philosophy. In a way, the entire discussion of philosophy within adult education has become perverted, with widespread misconceptions about what philosophy is, what it can accomplish and what its usefulness might be.

Currently, the entire discussion about philosophy within adult education seems to revolve around some version of the categories developed by Elias and Merriam. Instead of using these as analytic categories, helpful in exploring the works of differing writers, this classification system has become reified and rigid. Instead of using the groupings developed by Elias and Merriam as a beginning for understanding how people think about adult education's possibilities, we currently use them as the end, as a way of diagnosing our own underlying philosophical orientations.

In their original work, Elias and Merriam look at various writings and writers of adult education and then categorize them according to the author's orientation to knowledge, the learning transaction, and goal. These are not clearly distinguished with the result that the categorization has much overlap. The philosophical categories that Elias and Merriam posit are: liberal, behaviorist, progressive, humanist, radical and analytic. What we need to keep in mind at this juncture is that this is not how particular writers have categorized themselves. This is how Merriam and Elias see the various writers with which they deal. This is not problematic. In fact, this is the very essence of a rational approach to knowledge. Such an approach involves categorization as a step toward understanding complexity, seeking affinities among groups and identifying differences.

Elias and Merriam's categorizations are but one of many put forward by educational philosophers as an effort to understand different writings on educational philosophy. Others have different approaches and of course, such differences form the basis of liberal discourse and inquiry. For example, while Elias and Merriam place Freire as a radical, Skinner as a behaviorist, Rogers as a liberal and Dewey as a progressive, C.A. Bowers (1987) calls all of these writers liberals. The point here is not to go into the differences (although it is probably important that someone do this), but rather to point out that there are divergent ways to categorize different writings on philosophy.

For some reason adult educators, instead of seeing these categories as a means for helping with analysis, have chosen instead to use them as diagnostic categories -- something that helps an individual decide where he or she should be placed within a philosophical framework. This turns the concept of the categories on its head. We have moved from trying to understand various writers, to placing ourselves at the head of the pyramid.

Thus, from the attempt to understand how philosophers have viewed adult education, or education in general, we move to the importance of each practitioner having his or her own philosophy of adult education. This has led in turn, to a quite different discussion about the importance of philosophy within adult education. We are now constantly admonished that we need to understand how we make our decisions; what are the important decision-making points; and how the various dimensions of these decisions can affect practice. While important, this thrust shifts the debate away from any substantive philosophical discussion and instead focuses on the generic needs for the development of reflective practitioners.

According to the prevailing view, since reflective practitioners develop theories in action and successful practitioners are consistently developing their own theories, testing them and making revisions, then we each have within ourselves the capability to be a philosopher of education. …

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