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AIMS!

Whose aims?

Kevin Harris

There is a common belief, significantly shared by many beginning formal tertiary studies in education, that ‘education’ has a fixed meaning, and distinct aims, which can be unveiled either by turning up a dictionary or by consulting a favoured authority. So, in the very first lecture of every course I give, I stress that ‘education’ is a changing, contested and often highly personalised, historically and politically constructed concept. To illustrate this I read a few dictionary definitions of ‘education’, as well as a selected set of stated ‘aims of education’. When students hear that D. H. Lawrence claimed education should aim to ‘lead out the individual nature in each man and woman to its true fullness’, that for Rousseau the aim of education was ‘to come into accord with the teaching of nature’, that R. M. Hutchins saw the aim of education as ‘cultivation of the intellect’, that A. S. Neill believed the aim of education should be to ‘make people happier, more secure, less neurotic, less prejudiced’, and that John Locke claimed ‘education must aim at virtue and teach man to deny his desires, inclinations and appetite, and follow as reason directs’; hopefully the penny has dropped. Just in case it hasn’t I add in that while Pope Pius XI was declaring that the aim of education was to ‘cooperate with divine grace in forming the true and perfect Christian’, Sergei Shapovalenko insisted that education should aim ‘to inculcate the materialist outlook and communist mentality’. That usually does the trick.

What I have done in this exercise is to display a small selection of what R. S. Peters called ‘high level directives for education’. Providing such directives, and arguing over their substance, was once a staple activity of philosophers and philosophers of education; but much of that changed when philosophy of education entered its analytic phase in the 1960s. At that time Peters wrote (1966: 15) that ‘Few professional philosophers would now think that it is their function to provide . . . high-level directives for education or for life; indeed one of their main preoccupations has been to lay bare such aristocratic pronouncements under the analytic guillotine’.

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