My Philosophy of Education: A Work in Progress

According to Socrates (Socrates, n.d.) “the only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.” Socrates speaks brilliantly here to the riddles of knowledge and wisdom which humanity has grappled with since the beginning. Throughout history, many humans have sought the mysteries of the universe, questioned what mankind’s purpose is, wondered if that  purpose even exists outside our imagination. Some humans believe in the existence of an ultimate truth hidden somewhere amidst the folds of the universe and seek to unveil it, others deny the existence of an absolute truth, while others still maintain neutrality, subscribing to neither. Education-a term I use synonymously with the pursuit of knowledge-is ingrained in the fabric of humanity. It is mankind’s relentless pursuit of knowledge which perpetuates the species and cycles us through the black hole of Time. Socrates suggests that the one ‘truth’ of humanity can be had by accepting that one ‘knows nothing.’ One can spend a lifetime in pursuit of the ultimate ‘truth,’ a truth which promises one the highest form of wisdom-or one can accept that there is no truth to be pursued, and that this in itself is the ultimate truth. Education is the soul of humanity. Education validates our very existence. Education in its purest form is a communal, shared experience; the wider the audience, the more accessible the knowledge, the closer we are as a species to unearthing the truths we’ve thirsted after for as long as we can remember.

The purpose of education is to guarantee the evolution of our species. John Dewey “often spoke of education as synonymous with growth, and growth was one of his most important biological metaphors” (Noddings, 2012, p. 26). How can society keep up with the ever-changing times if education fails to produce growth among the future generations?  Education asserts the dominance of our species; knowledge is power. Education guarantees our present livelihood, and that of the future generations. Education is our birthright, our universal golden ticket. Education must stress the notion that all knowledge is interconnected; all knowledge of the present has expanded upon knowledge of the past. We educate our children so that they will know everything we knew, and will know where to pick up and start knowing where we left off.

Dewey theorized that “human beings at every stage of maturity use material from prior experience to guide present inquiry” (Noddings, 2012, p. 33). I’d go further to suggest that ‘prior experience’ need not be limited to those of the individual alone, and ‘prior experiences’ had by other humans beings forge a community of shared knowledge and experience integral to the human condition. The individual is taught at a young age not to touch electrical outlets, because other individuals before made this mistake without knowing and paid the price, so that today, this painful truth can be shared to spare others a similar Fate. Education provides the foundation; education reiterates the secrets humanity has unlocked thus far, outlines the boundaries, and circles the rest with a question mark. Education explicitly leaves the question mark open to student interpretation, so that one day it will be erased and replaced by another somewhere further along the map.

Education propels itself because new knowledge is constantly being acquired and recorded and shared. Education must provide a foundation of knowledge that may be built upon by future generations. It provides knowledge that can also be challenged, revisited, improved upon, altered, reinvented, even rendered obsolete. Education is an eternal starting point because like time, knowledge is not static, and is always changing. According to Dewey, “experience is educative only if it produces growth…students leave the experience more capable or interested in engaging in new experience “ (Noddings, 2012, p. 26). Hence, education must not tell or even show students how to think-it must explain the thinking behind how mankind practices thinking. Education must provide students with a foundation of knowledge, and insist that the foundation be expanded upon by the students, who will one day pass said expansions on to the world and preserve it for future generations. Through the process of education, humanity may always have room to grow, to improve, to prevail.

School buildings are physical manifestations of humanity’s devotion to the pursuit of knowledge. The school has the power to decide what past knowledge is relevant in the world today, to decide what knowledge can and cannot be questioned, and to dictate the method of knowledge-delivery unto students. The school itself has an incredible power; it controls what knowledge will be taught and how it will be taught, based on the opinions and beliefs of those in control of the school and/or community, as well as the belief system, morals, and laws of a given society as a whole. The traditional role of the school in Western society is to ‘prepare’ children for adulthood by equipping them with the basic knowledge and social skills necessary to become a productive and functional member of society. The school focuses on fulfilling the needs of those in charge of running a society by conditioning their future citizens to obediently operate within said society. In doing so, the education system in our nation has traditionally prioritized the needs of select groups of the population; namely, the wealthy and the politicians. Those in power have corrupted the purpose of education and the school system by using the system as a site to assert and ensure authority and control over the masses. In her work Democracy and Social Ethics (1902) social reformist Jane Addams explains how the education system of her time marginalized children of the working and poor classes;

The one fixed habit which the boy carries away with him from the school to the factory is the feeling that his work is merely provisional. In school the next grade was continually held before him as an object of attainment, and it resulted in the conviction that the sole object of present effort is to get ready for something else (Chapter vi educational methods, para. 10).

Her commentary is haunting in that the issue she discussed is relevant to this day, and hence has gone unsolved for over a century. Addams believed that education was the foundation of society, and that all members of a society, rich and poor alike, deserve access to knowledge serving in their own individual interests and pursuits; today, the struggle continues across the nation. Due in part to the implementation of Common Core standards, the term ‘attainment’ has become even more convoluted, morphing into universal ‘standards’ and ‘expectations’ to be met by all students across the nation. Failure to meet said standards and expectations bears grave ‘consequences’ according to National Public Radio [Npr] (2014), “state accountability tests are linked to consequences for students, teachers, schools, districts and states. So a sharp drop in scores is bound to be unpopular.” One might argue in favor of ‘standards’ in that educators, school districts, parents, and students must have some palpable instrument to measure ‘academic success.’ But if every individual is truly unique, then how does a school district or the government define ‘academic success’ or effectively measure ‘learning’ for each unique, individual student? It is not the school’s duty to ‘assess’ learning by comparing one set of scores to another. Knowledge is not-nor ever should be-a universal object of ‘attainment’ for this belief goes against the notion of learning as a unique, individual experience.

Schools must stress the fact that every individual is not the same but unique, but that it is this uniqueness that propels society forward, that reinvents the future, that sparks social change, that makes those scientific breakthroughs. The education system must accept that ‘achievement’ is not black and white; there is no ‘universal’ standard of being a human being. The expectation of the human condition is that every individual human being must realize one’s own unique purpose, and to fulfill this purpose for the betterment of the self and society. Schools must abolish all practices that seek to suppress the individual pursuit of knowledge; the system must prioritize the role of the student and encourage individual creativity, innovation, and independent critical thinking. Students must be taught that the school is merely a guide; the student must find that fire, must locate that purpose alone. Instead of guilting students into attaining standards, and shaming them when they fail to meet these standards, schools must subscribe to Dewey’s belief that “education has something to do with the construction of personal meaning” (Noddings, 2012, p. 31) and encourage students to ‘attain’ knowledge that they want to attain.

The only federally mandated education that schools must be required to teach is basic reading and writing skills, as it is necessary for future generations to be able to read written records of the past, and to write their own records of knowledge for the future.  Aside from this, students should be left to their own devices, and encouraged to pursue whatever sphere (s) of knowledge they believe to be relevant and valuable to their own interests, abilities, and life purpose. The educational curriculum must be tailored to each individual student, and the academic direction that a student takes should be left to the student’s discretion-the administration must not infringe upon the student’s right to the pursuit of knowledge. Dewey theorized that subject matter from the disciplines should “be presented so that students can use them in purposefully working through some problematic solution” (Noddings, 2012, p. 38). In this vein, subject matter across the disciplines should be introduced and suggested by the teacher in the moment of student inquiry, instead of planned ahead in a set curriculum.

Education must recognize that each individual’s pursuit of knowledge will vary, as every individual is unique and is born with a unique set of talents and with a unique purpose to fulfill. By inspiring the individual in this way, education releases an individual into adulthood with a sense of self, purpose, autonomy, and duty; in this, education ensures the happiness of the individual and thus, the successful perpetuation of mankind. To ensure that all schools serve all children well, schools must celebrate the individual. Schools must educate for education’s sake. Since the right to knowledge is a universal birthright, education is the natural right of all humans, regardless of gender, race, religion, and so forth. Students have the responsibility to recognize this right, and to take full advantage of it. Students must use their education as a means to realizing their own individual path and purpose in life; students must understand that it is their duty to find this path, not the duty of the school. It is not the duty of the school to reveal path and purpose unto students, it is a student’s sole responsibility to do so.

Education provides hope for the future of mankind by providing a foundation of established knowledge upon which students may expand on, change, and ultimately create the reality of the future. Teachers must encourage students to think, to question, to wonder;  but it is the student’s job to think, to question, to wonder, to hypothesize, to experiment. It is not the job of the education system to decide what a student’s purpose is in life and society nor to dictate the path upon which the student can realize these purposes. It is the duty of the system to provide the paper-it is the student’s duty to find the pen.

The teacher must recognize that a teacher’s utmost responsibility is to honor the needs of the student. The student’s emotional, mental, and physical well-being and individual academic success are first and foremost. In accordance with the aforementioned purpose of education, the teacher must recognize each student as unique with a unique purpose with a unique inner-greatness waiting to be harnessed through education and unveiled unto the world. The teacher must see students as human beings. It is the teacher’s responsibility is to make sure that students have learning experiences that build on their own prior experiences. According to Dewey;

Teachers must know something of their students’ prior experience and design new learning experiences that grow out of it, but they must also observe their students’ present experience and plan future experiences designed to move students toward a more sophisticated grasp of the subject” (Noddings 2012, p. 31).

In many schools across the nation, Dewey’s vision might seem like a romanticized fantasy that simply isn’t feasible, given the reality of class sizes and limited resources which hinder the teacher’s ability to cater to each individual student. Hence for Dewey’s vision to be realized, the education system itself must undergo a drastic philosophical transformation; this transformation would likely include national initiatives to decrease class sizes by hiring more teachers and or building more schools.

In her Ted Talk lecture (2013) veteran educator Rita Pierson describes an instance in which she told a disgruntled coworker, “you know, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” A teacher work to form a relationship with each student, and to make a genuine effort to get to know each student as an individual. As Pierson asserts, children won’t learn from teachers they don’t like, and certainly won’t be motivated to learn from a teacher if they think that the teacher doesn’t like them. According to Nel Noddings (2005) teachers must take care to show students that they care, and to forge ‘caring relations’ built on reciprocated trust and dialogue with every student. Lastly, teachers must at times, remind other teachers  of the oath which each teacher has sworn to uphold. As Pierson reminded her fellow teacher of the importance of forming bonds with students (for the benefit of both parties) teachers are responsible for encouraging their fellow educators. Teaching, like any profession, can be daunting at times, and some teachers do become jaded and hopeless. Teachers must recognize the warning signs and distress calls from fellow teachers and respond accordingly.

The ultimate purpose of education is to inspire further education and to ultimately inspire growth of the individual. Knowledge gained through education can further guide the individual down the path of self-actualization by helping the individual make meaning of the world and one’s place within it. Growth of the individual contributes to the growth of society which contributes to the evolution of our species. As the individual experiences growth through the process of education, the individual proceeds to share this growth in the form of ideas, theories, inventions, investigations, and so forth. Education moves humanity along by reminding us what we knew, what we thought we knew, and what we have yet to know. Education is a human birthright, for it is mankind’s curiosity and desire to know which distinguishes human beings from all other species on Earth. Knowledge is a double-edged sword; possession of knowledge, lust for knowledge, and envy for knowledge has sparked man’s downfall a myriad of times. Yet time and time again humanity redeems itself with knowledge, which raises humanity from the ashes of Fate so that man can fall again.

References

Addams, J. (1902). Democracy and social ethics. Retrieved from

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15487/15487-h/15487-h.htm

Field, R. (n.d.). John Dewey (1859-1952).Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/dewey/

Noddings, N. (2005). Caring in education.The encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved from http://infed.org/mobi/caring-in-education/

Noddings, N. (2012). Philosophy of education (3rd ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Pierson, R. (2013, May). Every kid needs a champion[Video file]. Ted.com. Retrieved from 

https://www.ted.com/talks/rita_pierson_every_kid_needs_a_champion? language=en#t-5721

Socrates. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved from http://www.brainyquote.com/citation/quotes/ quotes/s/socrates101212.html?ct=Socrates

The Common Core FAQ. (2014). Npr.org. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/ 2014/05/27/307755798/the-common-core-faq

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