11

THE NATURE OF EDUCATIONAL AIMS

Paul H. Hirst

Central to the history of Western educational thought has been the constantly developing notion of a liberal education. Rooted in beliefs propounded by classical Greek philosophers, this conception of education has been progressively reconstructed under many different influences, not least Cartesian dualism, British empiricism, Kantian rationalism and nineteenth-century liberalism. Its most recent detailed characterisation has been by philosophers of education much influenced by twentieth-century analytical philosophy. The resulting formulation, with its sharply focused aims and attendant philosophical underpinnings, has in fact widely determined at least the framework of almost all discussion of educational aims up to very recent times. But of late, the major philosophical beliefs behind the approach have been severely attacked, so much so that this whole formulation and not just its details now seem in need of radical reconsideration. In this chapter, via an examination of certain of these fundamental beliefs, I shall argue for a new and, it is to be hoped, more adequate approach to characterising the whole domain of educational aims.

I shall take it as axiomatic that the term ‘education’ labels those activities of learning aimed at enabling individuals to live good lives. Clearly, the term is frequently used for areas of activity that can only contribute in some limited way to such a life. But in its general sense I shall take it that education is directed at the development and promotion of a person’s good life as a whole. The liberal education tradition has certainly taken such an overall view, and, given that aim, has sought repeatedly to spell out in detail what it entails in contemporary terms.

Manifestly, any such attempt demands both some conception of what it is to develop and live a human life and the making of certain value judgements that will mark out a good life and its distinctive features. In these terms the late twentieth-century form of liberal education has taken human beings to be entities capable, by virtue of certain naturally given capacities, of making sense of themselves and their world and of engaging in autonomous action. Granted such a view of human nature, a good life has been held to be one autonomously determined in all its aspects by reason - that is, by the proper exercise of a person’s capacities to achieve knowledge and understanding - to make rational choices and to act accordingly. Liberal education is then seen as fundamentally an initiation into the nature and content of knowledge and understanding, into ‘the best that has been thought and said’. On that foundation, given capacities for autonomously determining all other personal characteristics, individuals are judged able to fashion for themselves their own rational lives. Insofar as educational aims go beyond the pursuit of knowledge and understanding they focus on facilitating the making of rational choices in its application, acting in accordance with such choices and developing the personal qualities and skills these entail. At the heart of all these additional aims, however, lies the knowledge that gives them their character and meaning.

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