Competing voices for the curriculum


Kieran Egan





The competing voices the title refers to are those of parents, governments, press, professional educators, the corporate world, "the public" as an entity somehow supposed to be distinct from each of the above, and others that emerge from time to time making claims on the school curriculum. These are often referred to as the "stakeholders" who, as stakeholders, are assumed to have a right of influence on the school curriculum. The State, corporate sector, and the educational community are supposed to have interests in common but also somewhat different, such that the ideal curriculum of each group would vary somewhat, though perhaps with a more or less common core. Analyses of the "rights," the claims, and the influences of the different stakeholders tend to focus on their political clout, the means they have of influencing the curriculum, their demographic make-up, the particular curriculum revisions their interests dictate, and so on.


I want to suggest that a lot of this focus is misplaced, and that it is probably not very useful if considered without analysis of the ideas that these stakeholders have available to think with. If we know about the ideas they have to think with, we can make a much more economical and effective analysis of their influence on the curriculum. Dealing with general theoretical issues may seem remote from the activities in that school down the road to practical people, and may seem remote from the pragmatic issues of power over the curriculum. I will try to show that unless we get these theoretical issues front and centre, much of our common-sense, pragmatic discussion of the struggles for the curriculum, will likely be so much waste of time..


I will take as my starting point J.M. Keynes's famous, or infamous, conclusion to his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936)&emdash;(I will change the words slightly to fit an educational rather than an economic context):

the ideas of educational theorists, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed education is ruled by little else. Practical people, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct educational theorist. Mad people in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of educational stakeholders is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of education there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so the ideas which administrators and politicians and even teachers apply to current schooling are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not "stakeholders," which are dangerous for good or ill.


To understand the struggle for the curriculum, then, one needs to have a clear idea of what ideas govern the actions of those engaged in the struggle, what the stakeholders think they are doing. And so one needs to get clear what they have to think with about issues of the curriculum, what ideas detemine their actions. What follows, then, is a brief and very general attempt to get some handle on the prime determiner of the behavior of the various educational stakeholders; the dominanat ideas of education that they use. I will argue that there are only three significant educational ideas, and that we can better understand the moves of the various stakeholders by seeing that they tend to hold these three different ideas in different proportions. I will discuss these ideas briefly, putting them in the context of their initial appearances -- so that we might also have some sense of whose ideas shape current struggles, of which academic scribblers are the real combatants, the real proponents in the stakeholder's mimic battles.


The three ideas are that we must shape the young to the current norms and conventions of adult society, that we must teach them the knowledge that will ensure their thinking conforms with what is real and true about the world, and that we must encourage the development of each student's individual potential. These three ideas have rolled together over the centuries into what is our currently dominant conception of education.


I will try to show, furthermore, than not only does this analysis of ideas give us a better grasp on what is at stake in battles for the curriculum, but it also can give us a better understanding of why we have such practical problems in making schools more educationally effective institutions. Commonly each group of stakeholders tends not only to have a particular interest in the curriculum, but also tends to blame some other stakeholder or stakeholders for the ineffectiveness of schools. (Among the various stakeholders, only professional educators wil sometimes claim that schools are doing a good educational job. The various reports, task forces, commissions that have pronounced on public education in the Western world for the last half century have been almost unanimous in their condemnations of schools.) There is certainly no shortage of candidates recommended to our blaming attention. We are told that inadequately educated teachers are to blame, or the absence of market incentives, or the inequities of capitalist societies, or the lack of local control over schools, or the genetic intellectual incapacity of 85% of the population to benefit from instruction in more than basic literacy and skills, or drugs, or the breakdown of the nuclear family and family values, or an irrelevant academic curriculum, or a trivial curriculum filled only with the immediately relevant, or short-sighted politicians demanding hopelessly crude achievement tests while grossly underfunding the education system, or a lack of commitment to excellence, or vacuous schools of education, or mindless T.V. and other mass-media, or failure to attend to some specific research results, and so on.


Along with the cacophony of blame comes a panoply of prescriptions; introduce market incentives, make the curriculum more "relevant"/academic, reform teacher-training, ensure students' active involvement in their learning, and so on. I will try to show that none of the above, nor any of the other suspects who are usually rounded up, is the cause of schools' ineffectiveness, and consequently, none of the related prescriptions is likely to make things better. Rather, our problem can be better identified by focusing on the ideas that are in conflict, and, in our current case, we may see that our problem derives from schools trying to implement a fundamentally incoherent conception of education. I will try to indicate the incoherence of the general conception of education that governs most people's ideas of what schools ought to be doing. So, I will outline the three general ideas that determine people's thinking about education today, and I will then try to show in what ways these three great ideas are mutually incompatible, and I will conclude by trying to show how this abstract theoretical discussion can help us better understand our current educational disputes and our practical educational problems.


Education's three ideas


The first idea: Socialization

Central to any educational scheme is initiation of the young into the knowledge, skills, values, and commitments common to the adult members of the society. Oral cultures long ago invented techniques to ensure that the young would efficiently learn and remember the social group's store of knowledge and skills and would also take on the values and emotional commitments that sustain the structure of each particular society and establish the sense of identity of its individual members.


Prominent among the techniques developed in oral cultures for socializing the young were the use of rhyme, rhythm, meter, and vivid images, to help fix important lore in the minds of the young. Perhaps the most powerful technique invented, and perhaps the greatest of all social inventions, was the coding of lore into stories. This had the dual effect of making the contents more easily remembered&emdash;crucial in cultures where all knowledge had to be preserved in living memories&emdash;and also of shaping the hearers' emotional commitment to those contents at the same time. So once one could code the lore that was vital to one's society into stories&emdash;lore concerned with such things as proper kinship relations and appropriate behavior, economic activities, property rights, class status, medical knowledge and its application, and so on&emdash;one could ensure greater cohesiveness within the social group.


Human beings have an enormous plasticity early in life to adapt to a kaleidescopically indeterminate range of cultural forms, beliefs, and patterns of behavior. The central task of socialization is to inculcate a restricted set of norms and beliefs&emdash;that set which constitutes the adult society the child will grow into. Societies can survive and maintain their sense of identity only if a certain degree of homogeneity is achieved in shaping its new members; and "education perpetuates and reinforces this homogeneity by fixing in the child, from the beginning, the essential similarities that collective life demands" (Durkheim, 1956, p. 70).


Whoever governs the initiation process&emdash;the story-tellers or the ministry of education and the school board&emdash;acts on behalf of the norms and values that are dominant in the society at large. Their job is to perform the homogenizing task Durkheim refers to; it is a process of convergence towards particular norms and values. To put it at its simplest, socializing aims to make people more alike. If a school today in Cuba or Iran routinely graduated liberal, capitalist entrepreneurs, it would be considered a disaster. In Winnipeg, Wigan, Wabash, or Wollongong, this would not be considered so bad. Indeed, what would be considered outrageous in Iran is a deliberate aim of Wollongong schools.


The process of socialization is central to the mandate of schools today. Our schools have the duty to ensure that students graduate with an understanding of their society and of their place and possibilities within it, that they have the skills required for its perpetuation, and that they hold the values and commitments that are common to the society at large. While we might not feel comfortable with the term, we accept that a prominent aim of schools is this homogenization of children.


The spokespersons of governments, taxpayers, and businesses that require the schools to produce a skilled workforce of good citizens, echo those who learned long-ago the techniques for reproducing in the young the values and beliefs, the skills and lore, that best contribute to the untroubled perpetuation of the tribe. The public voices that primarily associate education with jobs, the economy, and the production of good citizens reflect a predominantly socializing emphasis.


The very structure of modern schools in the West, with their age-cohorts, class-groupings, team-sports, and so on, encourage conformity to modern Western social norms. Such structures can accommodate only a limited range of non-conformity. Students learn, more or less, to fit in for their own good. We need not see this process of socialization and homogenization as the de-humanizing, right wing conspiracy it was "exposed" to be by 1960s romantic radical writers on education (e.g., Goodman, 1962; Kozol, 1967; Roszak, 1969; Young, 1971). Of course, pushed to extremes&emdash;which is where the sixties and modern radicals consider the regular public school to be&emdash;the socially necessary homogenizing process can become totalitarian in its demands for conformity. But most pluralistic Western societies build defences against those who are most eager to censor children's reading or restrict their behavior and shape their beliefs excessively.


So, the currently dominant conception of education includes as one of its main constituent ideas the socialization of the young. This constituent is evident in those voices that support curriculum time being given over to such subjects as consumer education, programs combatting drug-use, programs in auto-maintenance, and other areas that promote useful knowledge and skills. Sometimes they may argue that schools should graduate students only when they are equipped to do a job. I have kept an old letter from an Ann Landers' column from someone who signed, sadly, as "Too soon old&emdash;too late smart." The letter expresses frustration with schools in which "our children are subjected to 12 years of 'education' without learning how to conduct themselves in real-life situations" and suggests as a remedy that schools introduce a course on the hazards and consequences of shoplifting in the fifth or sixth grade, that several days a week be devoted to the subject of cigarette smoke, that there be instruction in the dangers of alcoholism, that sex education be a "must" in every school not later than the seventh grade, that there be courses on "life"&emdash;how to settle arguments, how to express anger and hostility, how to deal with competitive feelings involving brothers and sisters, how to live with alcoholic parents, what to do about "funny uncles" and passes made by homosexual peers. The writer concludes that of course algebra and geometry are important, but that information on how to handle one's life should take precedence.


Too soon old&emdash;Too late smart expresses very clearly how the curriculum would be changed if socializing were made more prominent in the schools' mandate. Those who share this view see the school as primarily a social agency which should be ever-sensitive to society's changing needs, and flexible in changing its programs to respond to those needs. Recently their voices have been prominent in demands that schools ensure that students become familiar with computers and their range of applications. They support counselling programs and like to see school counsellors, working along with parents, helping students adjust to the strains and challenges of modern society. Sports, travel, exchanges, visits to monuments and courts and government buildings, social studies activities that help students understand their local environment, tend all to be supported as helping to socialize the young. The teacher, from the perspective of this idea, is an important social worker, primarily valuable as a role-model who exemplifies the values, beliefs, and norms of the dominant society; knowledge of subject matter cannot substitute for "character," wholesomeness, and easy and open communication with students.

The second idea: Plato and the truth about reality

Plato (c.428-347 B.C.E.) had a new idea about how people should be educated. He wrote The Republic as a kind of elaborate prospectus for his Academy. Not conforming with the best modern advertising practice, he laid out his ideas in a manner that involved constantly arguing the inadequacy of the forms of education offered by his competitors. Plato wanted to show that the worldly-wise, the well-socialized, practical person equipped with all the skills of a good and effective citizen was not just educationally inadequate, but actually contemptible. The assertive and confident Thrasymachus of The Republic and the worldly-wise Callicles of the Gorgias are shown to be other than the masters of affairs they seem; they are shown to be slaves of conventional ideas because they cannot reflect self-critically on those ideas. That ability to reflect on ideas, to pull them this way and that until some bedrock of truth and certainty is established, was the promised result of the curriculum described in The Republic and offered in Plato's Academy. Plato certainly wanted the graduates of his school to be politically active and to change the world, but first they had to be philosophers and understand it.


Plato's revolutionary idea was that education should not be primarily concerned with equipping students to develop the knowledge and skills best suited to ensuring their success as citizens, sharing the norms and values of their peers. Rather, education was to be a process of learning those forms of knowledge that would give students a privileged, rational view of reality. Only by disciplined study of increasingly abstract forms of knowledge could the mind transcend the conventional beliefs, prejudices and stereotypes of the time, and finally see reality clearly. He proposes that the everyday world disclosed by our perceptions and conventional beliefs can somehow be better understood by a rational grasp of some transcendent world of abstract theoretic ideas, which are accessible only after decades of refined scholarly activity guided by a kind of spiritual commitment. Now this hasn't been everyone's cup of tea by any means.


But Plato succeeded in expressing his central idea with such clarity, force, vividness, and imaginative wit that everyone who has written about education in the West since has been profoundly influenced by it. It has also been a disturbing idea. Who, after all, wants to live and die a prisoner to conventional prejudices and stereotypes, frightened of reality, never seeing the world as it really is? And how can one know that one is dealing with reality rather than with illusions and stereotypes? Plato's claim that his "academic" curriculum alone can carry the mind to rationality and a secure access to reality has been so influential that we can hardly imagine a conception of education without it.


And, indeed, nearly everyone today takes it for granted that schools should attend to the intellectual cultivation of the young in ways that are not justified simply in terms of social utility. We include in the curriculum a range of subject matter that we assume will do something valuable for students' minds and give them a more realistic grasp of the world. So, we consider it important to teach them that Saturn is a planet that orbits the Sun, rather than have them believe that it is a wandering star erratically orbiting the earth and influencing their daily fortune by its association with other stars. We teach division of fractions, algebra, drama, ancient history, and much else for which most students will never have a practical need. The place of such topics in the curriculum is usually justified in rather vague terms, variously argued by those who claim that they are of "educational value" and benefit the minds of students. In Plato's idea, the mind is what it learns, and so selecting the content of the curriculum is vital. Consequently, too, he seems reluctantly to have concluded that women should be educated equally with men.


So, how is the Platonic idea of education represented today? One prominent conception can be introduced via an image suggested by the work of the astronomer, Carl Sagan. Sagan has been energetic in organizing a search for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence by means of radio telescopes. He presents a vividly romantic picture of a conversation among intelligent beings in our galaxy, which we are just now developing the technology to enter. By plugging in, we might suddenly have access to a conversation of unimaginable richness and wonder. In a more immediately possible sense, modern proponents of the Platonic idea of education suggest that accessing a transcendent conversation is precisely what education does for the individual. Michael Oakeshott (1991), for example, represents education as entry into a conversation that began long ago in the jungles and plains of Africa, gathered further voices, perspectives, and varied experience in the ancient kingdoms of the east, then additional distinctive voices and experience in ancient Greece and Rome, and so on and on. The conversation is now one of immense richness, wonder, and diversity. An individual can live and die happily, be socialized harmoniously in her or his special milieu, but remain almost entirely ignorant of this great cultural conversation, as we will likely do with regard to Sagan's imagined galactic interchange. But if it were really there in radio waves across the galaxy and we had the means to join it, would we not be foolish to ignore it? Would we not be culpably impoverishing our experience? The task of education, in this view, is to connect children with the great cultural conversation which very definitely is there, and which transcends any particular political society or special milieu or any particular form of local experience or conventional sets of norms and values. To pass up the chance to engage in this conversation is culpably to impoverish our experience; it is to live like Proust's dog in the library&emdash;possibly content, but ignorant of the potential riches around one.


Those who want the schools to connect children to this great cultural conversation, and to serve as bastions of civilization against the cretinizing mindlessness of pop-culture (these are the kind of terms they like), who want students to be engaged by the disinterested pursuit of truth through the hard academic disciplines that will make them knowledgeable, discriminating, and skeptical, give new voice to the idea Plato bequeathed to us. These are people who value Plato's idea higher than the other two. For them, school is properly a place apart from society: a place dedicated to knowledge, skills, and activities that are of "persisting value," transcending the requirements of current social life. Indeed, what students learn is to establish the grounds from which they can judge the appropriateness of the values, norms, beliefs, and practices of society. Schools dominated by this idea consequently tend to be called élitist.


This idea leads its proponents to infer that the institutions that should give direction to the school curriculum are not those of society at large but those of higher education, particularly the university. Knowledge is valued less for its social utility and more for its presumed benefit to the mind of the student&emdash;so Latin will have a higher status than auto-maintenance in such a view. "Excellence" has recently been a prominent slogan for modern neo-conservative promoters of this Platonic idea. Their outrage is directed particularly at students' ignorance of their cultural heritage (cf. the British Black Papers on Education during the 1960s and 1970s; Hirsch, 1987; Ravitch & Finn, 1987). They would like to refocus schooling on teaching an academic program and remove or downplay programs that do not serve that central purpose of the school. The curriculum would be constructed primarily on grounds of intellectual and cultural, rather than more generally social, value, and so literature and history, the sciences and mathematics will receive most curriculum time, and subjects like Latin, Greek, and art history will stake a claim to a presence in the curriculum denied them when the other ideas have been predominant. In schools dominated by this idea, the teacher will tend to occupy a more distant, authoritative and even authoritarian role because teachers properly embody the authority that comes from being an expert in the relevant subject-matter.

The third idea: Rousseau and nature's guidance

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) thought that most of the educational practice he saw around him was disastrous. He was happy to acknowledge that Plato's Republic "is the finest treatise on education ever written," but he concluded that it lacked something, and that lack was undermining its implementation. What happened when dull pedagogues took hold of Plato's idea at sixth or seventh hand was that they focused on the forms of knowledge that made up the curriculum, organized those into what seemed the best logical order, then beat them into the students. The typical result was misery, violence, and frustration: a syndrome not unknown today, though we may mark some success, influenced by Rousseau, at reducing the physical violence inflicted on children in the name of education.


Pedagogues, Rousseau observed, "are always looking for the man in the child, without considering what he is before he becomes a man" (Rousseau, 1911, p. 1). In Emile, he focused attention instead on the nature of the developing child, concentrating less on what ought to be learned and more on what children at different ages are capable of learning and on how learning might proceed most effectively. He saw his book, Emile, as a kind of supplement to the Republic, rectifying its major omission and updating the master's work. But, as we'll see, Emile was built on assumptions profoundly at odds with Plato's.


Rousseau's central and continuous theme was that if you want students to understand what you teach, then you must make your methods of teaching conform with the nature of students' learning: "The internal development of our faculties and organs is the education of nature. The use we learn to make of this development is the education of men" (Rousseau, 1911, p. 11). So, to be able to educate, we must first understand that internal development process. The most important area of educational study, then, is the nature of students' development, learning, motivation, and so on. The more we know about these, the more efficient and humane we can make the educational process. The key is that underlying natural development: "Fix your eye on nature, follow the path traced by her" (Rousseau, 1911, p. 14).


As nature was to be our guide, and Rousseau clearly believed the nature of males and females to be significantly different, "nature" thus dictated a quite different education for Sophie from that of Emile&emdash;an education that encouraged the "domination and violation of women" (Darling & Van de Pijpekamp, 1994).)


Emile was published in 1762, and promptly ordered to be burned in Paris and Geneva. This no doubt helped sales considerably, as it went from printing to printing. No doubt the sentimental image of the child helped the book's popularity too (Warner, 1940), even while Rousseau himself was dispatching his own unwanted children to foundling hospitals. But the rhetorical force with which Emile conveys its conception of the benefits that follow from attending to the nature of the student carried his ideas across Europe. In more recent times, John Dewey and Jean Piaget have been profoundly influenced by Rousseau, and the degree to which their ideas have affected practice is one index of his continuing influence.


Careful observation and study of students, recognition of the distinctive forms of learning and sense-making that characterize different ages, construction of methods of teaching that engage students' distinctive forms of learning, emphasis on individual differences among learners, observation that students learn much better when they are themselves active, and insistence that the student's own discovery is vastly more effective than the tutor's "words, words, words," are all features of Rousseau's educational scheme. While it would be false to claim him as the originator of all these ideas, he did bring them together into a powerful and coherent conception of education. These are ideas that have become a part of the "common-sense" or the taken-for-granted folklore of so many educationalists today. It would now be considered strange not to recognize the importance of students' varying learning styles, or not to recognize the value of methods of teaching that encourage students' active inquiry, or not to accommodate to the significant differences among students at different ages. Rousseau's central idea, that is to say, provides another of the main constituents of the dominant conception of education that schools today try to implement.


The modern voices that encourage schools to focus on fulfilling the individual potential of each student, that emphasize that students should "learn how to learn" as a higher priority than amassing academic knowledge, that support programs in "critical thinking," that evaluate educational success not in terms of what knowledge students have acquired so much as in terms of what they can do with what they know, reflect this third educational idea. Active, inquiring students who are enjoying learning are the ideal of schools dominated by this idea. The focus of education, in this view, is the experience of the child. The construction of a common core curriculum for all children is not simply undesirable to promoters of this idea, but impossible. Each child's experience, even of the same curriculum content, is necessarily different. We should recognize this, and let the unique experience and needs of each child be the determiner of the curriculum, even to the radical point of making the curriculum a response to the questions students raise (Postman & Weingartner, 1969). The educator's attention should be focused on the individual development of each child and on the provision of the experiences that can optimally further this development. The commonest expression of this idea today combines the variously interpreted progressivism of John Dewey (Kleibard, 1986) with Piaget's developmentalism and the psychologizing of the study of children&emdash;the modern form of discovering their "nature" that Rousseau recommended. In the classroom, and outside it, "discovery learning" is valued, manipulables and museums are recommended for students' exploration, discussion is encouraged, project-work by individuals or groups is provided for. Careful attention is given to the results of empirical studies of children's learning, development, motivation, and so on, and teaching and curricula are adjusted to conform with such "research findings." The teacher, in such a school, is not an authority so much as a facilitator, a provider of the best resources, a shaper of the environment from the responses of their actions on which the students will learn.




Are these three ideas really incompatible? Surely we can find a way of addressing these somewhat distinct aims for education without having them undermine each other? Why can we not socialize students to prevailing norms and values, while also ensuring that they accumulate the kind of knowledge that will give a truer view of the world, and also help them to fulfill the potential of each stage of development? A rigorous academic program surely does not conflict with society's needs, and facts about learning, development, and motivation surely can only help us better implement both the academic program and socialization? At least, Plato's concern with the what of education is surely not at war with Rousseau's concern with the how? Don't they properly complement each other? Looked at in sufficiently general and vague a manner, it may indeed seem that the distinctive ideas that constitute our conception of education are not as incompatible as I have been suggesting. Certainly the everyday business of schooling in Western societies has been going ahead on the assumption that evident problems are due to improper management, or poor teaching, or genetic constraints on students' abilities to learn, or flawed curriculum organization, and not to some profound theoretical incompatibility among constituents of our concept of education. But I think the incompatibility is there, and it is at the root of our practical problems. Let us consider the incompatibilities of each constituent idea with the others.

Plato and socializing.

The homogenizing aim of socialization, which is to reproduce in each student a particular set of beliefs, conventions, commitments, norms of behavior, and values is necessarily at odds with a process that aims to show the hollowness and inadequacy of those beliefs, conventions, commitments, and so on. They are, after all, the glue that holds society's foundations in place. If Socrates was Plato's ideal example of the educated person, it is evident why the democratic citizens of Athens condemned him to death. The radical skepticism that his kind of education engendered threatened the foundations of society. He was condemned for corrupting the youth. What he was corrupting, or corroding, was their acceptance of the conventions, beliefs, values that were fundamental to the life of their society. His fellow citizens saw his behavior as a kind of treason.


No-one now believes that Plato's ideal aim of direct knowledge of the real, the true, the good, and the beautiful is attainable. What is attainable, though, is the skeptical, philosophical, informed mind that energetically inquires into the nature and meaning of things, that is unsatisfied by conventional answers, that repudiates belief in whatever cannot be adequately supported by good arguments or evidence, and that embodies the good-humored corrosive of Socratic irony. This kind of consciousness has not often been greatly valued by those who govern societies; it is a disruptive force. Everyday social life, particularly in complex modern economic systems, proceeds more smoothly and blandly without the irritant created by following Plato's educational prescription too closely. If people are busy asking "but is this really the best way to live?" all the time, they simply can't get on with everyday business with single-minded efficiency.


Of course we want the promised benefits of both educational ideas. We want the social harmony and the psychological stability that successful socialization encourages, but we also want the cultivation of the mind, the skepticism and dedication to rationality that Plato's program encourages. Designing schools to achieve either one is difficult. Our schools today are supposed to encourage conformity to specific norms and values while encouraging skepticisms of them at the same time.

Rousseau and Plato.

But if we see Plato as dealing with the what of education and Rousseau with the how, then we need not consider them incompatible? This common resolution of apparent conflicts would be fine were it not the case that it falsely represents both ideas. The above compromise, leaving Plato's descendants with the content and aims of education and Rousseau's with the methods, appeals to many as a neat division of labor. So the educational philosophers can deal with content and aims, drawing on the knowledge generated by the educational psychologists about learning and development. It seems so obvious that facts about students' development can blend with philosophers' research into the nature and structure of knowledge to yield a more easily understood math or history curriculum. It seems so obvious that such collaboration should be common that one would expect the absence of it to compel reassessment of what looks, but clearly isn't, obvious.


One problem for the neat compromise is that, in the Rousseauian and Deweyan view, the means and ends of education are tied together. They argue that distinct means cannot be employed in education to achieve distinct ends. The means used in Rousseauian and Deweyan instruction are parts of their educational ends. They favor discovery procedures, for example, not because they are more efficient means to some distinct educational ends, but because they are a component of their educational ends. Discovery procedures, in Rousseau's terms, disclose nature and in so doing stimulate the development of a pure, uninfected reason. In Dewey's terms, discovery procedures mirror the scientific method whose acquisition by students is a crucial component of their education. We have incorporated this idea into our currently dominant conception of education. Put crudely, we recognize the inappropriateness of beating children who have failed to memorize the text on compassion; we feel a bit uncomfortable about compelling attendance at institutions that try to teach the values of liberty and democracy; and it is increasingly clear that choice of method of teaching is not a simple strategic matter disconnected from our educational ends. In our educational means are our ends; in our educational ends are our means.


A further problem may be seen by observing that Plato and his descendents have their own conception of educational development. Students progress, in Plato's scheme, from the stages of eikasia, to pistis, to dianoia, to noesis. But these stages are interestingly different from Rousseau's and from Piaget's. Plato's stages represent greater clarity in understanding. Education, in Plato's view and in that of modern proponents of the academic idea, is marked by students' progress through stages of mastery of increasingly sophisticated knowledge&emdash;regardless of how they may be progressing through some putative psychological developmental stages. For Rousseau, and Piaget, it is precisely the psychological developmental stages that mark education, and that must determine what kind of knowledge the student needs; as the development of the body proceeds almost regardless of the particular food it eats, so the mind will develop almost regardless of the particular knowledge it learns. For the Platonists, the only development of educational interest is the accumulation of the particular knowledge learned; the mind is nothing much else.


So Rousseau and his modern followers are not simply making methodological or procedural recommendations, which might allow us to do the Platonic academic job more efficiently. They are actually recommending a different job. Rousseau's idea is not one that yields us an easy accommodation with Plato's. These ideas conflict&emdash;most profoundly in identifying the cause and dynamic of the educational process. In the Platonic idea, learning particular forms of knowledge carries the educational process forward; in the Rousseauian idea, education results from an internal, developmental process unfolding within a supportive environment. In the Platonic view, knowledge drives development; in the Rousseauian view, development drives knowledge; it determines what knowledge is learnable, meaningful, and relevant. In the Platonic view, education is a time-related, epistemological process; in the Rousseauian view, it is an age-related, psychological process.


We could design schools to implement either of these conceptions of education, but we require our schools to implement both together. Our practical difficulties arise from our acceptance that both the Platonic and the Rousseauian ideas are necessary for education, but the more we try to implement one, the more we undermine the other.


The conflict between these two ideas has been the basis of the continuing struggles between "traditionalists" and "progressivists" during this century. One sees them at odds in almost every media account of educational issues, where the Platonic forces argue for "basics" and a solid academic curriculum, and the Rousseauians argue for "relevance" and space for students' exploration and discovery. A key battleground as I write this is the elementary social studies curriculum in North America; the "traditionalist" forces are pressuring for a revision that will reintroduce history and geography in place of the "progressivists'" preferred "relevant" focus on families, neighborhoods, communities, interactions among communities, and so on; the "progressivist" forces argue that history and geography require abstract concepts and are not "developmentally appropriate" for young children and the "traditionalists" argue that any content can be made comprehensible if presented sensibly.

Socializing and Rousseau.

When socializing, we derive our educational aim from society's norms and values; in the Rousseauian view, we should keep the child from contact with society's norms and values as long as possible, because they are "one mass of folly and contradiction" (Rousseau, 1911, p. 46). If we want to let the nature of the child develop and flower as fully as possible, we will constantly defend her or him against the shaping pressures of society. An aspect of this conflict is apparent today in many educators' attitudes to the general influence of TV on children. TV provides a powerful shaping to a set of prominent social norms and values, but educators resist much of this shaping in favor of activities that seem to them less likely to distort proper or "natural" development. "Natural" is not, of course, the term much used today, but it lurks around the various ways the Rousseauian position is restated, as in a number of books that appeal to a conception of a more natural kind of childhood which is being distorted or suppressed by current forms of socialization (e.g., Elkind, 1981; Postman, 1982). Some of the 1960s radicals were even plainer&emdash;Paul Goodman put it this way: "The purpose of elementary pedagogy, through age twelve, should be to delay socialization, to protect children's free growth.... We must drastically cut back formal schooling because the present extended tutelage is against nature and arrests growth" (1970, p. 86).


No-one, of course, is simply on the side of Rousseau against socialization, or vice versa. We all recognize that any developmental process has to take place within, and be influenced by, a particular society. Our problem comes about because of the attraction of Rousseau's ideas about a kind of development that honors something within, something uninfected by the compromises, by the corruptions and constrictions, that social life so commonly brings with it. We do not have to share Rousseau's own disgust with society (which returned him high regard and money) to recognize the attraction of his ideas. This Rousseauian idea of development entails the belief that the most important shaping of the individual must come from a natural, spontaneous, internal process, and proper education requires that all influences from society either conform with that process or be held at bay.


There doesn't seem room for much compromise here. We can't sensibly aim to shape a child's development half from nature and half from society. That creates the same problems as half punishing and half rehabilitating a prisoner. Such treatments interfere with one another. The more we do one, the more we undermine the other. By trying to compromise, we ensure only that neither is effective.


There are, of course, a number of ways of seeing this conflict that do not lead to the conclusion of incompatibility I am urging. We can "solve" the problem by observing that our nature is indeterminately plastic in our early years and socialization is a condition of our nature being realized. We are, after all, social animals; there is no natural form that we will develop towards if we are kept apart from society. We can "solve" this conflict also by seeing it not as one between nature and society but much more simply as the kinds of disagreements one must expect in a pluralistic society about the preferred norms and values into which children should be socialized. But the incompatibility I am concerned with is only within the conception of education, and it seems to me inevitable so long as people conceive of children as going through some regular, spontaneous, process of intellectual development which can be optimized by shaping their learning environment to suit it. One cannot derive one's educational principles both from some conception of an ideal developmental process and also from some current norms and values of adult society; they are bound to be incompatible unless one lives in a perfect society. They are incompatible because socializing has a distinct end in view and is a shaping, homogenizing, narrowing process towards that end, whereas supporting the fullest development of students' potentials involves releasing them to explore and discover their uniqueness; it is an individualizing process that encourages distinctiveness even to the point of eccentricity if necessary, and is expansive without predetermined ends.



As I noted above, nobody holds to one of these ideas exclusively. The different positions of education's stakeholders can be seen in the different degrees with which they hold the three ideas. Also the fact that they all hold the three mutually incompatible ideas in whatever degrees ensures that their related prescriptions for improving education are likely to be unsuccessful.


We could characterise the positions of the various stakeholders in terms of the three ideas. So, in general, corporate stakeholders want lots of socialization, basic Plato (but not enough for systematic skepticism), and cautious dribbles of Rousseau. Professional educators today, tend to want lots of Rousseau and a fair bit of Plato with judicious amounts of socialization. Parents want lots of everything. Upper-class conservatives tend to support lots of Plato, lots of socialization, with small amounts of Rousseau, whereas radicals want lots of Rousseau, a fair amount of socialization, with a little Plato. Well, this is at one level silly , but could be elaborated in ways that would more clearly establish the ways in which the major positions we see in the press or in policy documents simply reflect different amounts of these three ideas. Most familiar is the Plato/Rousseau battle which has been prominent during this century in terms of traditional vs. progressive stances.


So what is the point of this kind of excercise? We are left with the problems we started with, only seeing in them in more abstract, theoretical terms. Well, this is the point of ivory towers, in which one can abstract oneself from the details of the particular battles that are going on among, in this case, education's stakeholders and try to see in a more fundamental sense what they are about. If we leave it like this, of course, the excercise is futile. The point about understanding the world is that it better enables us to change it. The problem with not understanding it adequately is that one's suggested solutions to problems will themselves be inadequate, and often cause even worse problems. This seems to me the case for the panoply of recommendations for educational change that are touched on in the Introduction above. Our problem is that we have three profound and important ideas, which are all indispensible, but which are also in significant ways incompatible. The solution will have to starts from resolving this theoretical incompatibility. Proposals that that fail to do this will be futile.





Darling, J. & M. Van de Pijpekamp, (1994). "Rousseau on the education, domination and violation of women. British Journal of Educational Studies. XXXXII, 2, pp. 115-132.

Durkheim, E. (1956). Education and sociology. trans. Sherwood D. Fox. New York: Free Press.

Elkind, D. (1981). Child development and education: A Piagetian perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.

Goodman, P. (1962). Compulsory miseducation & The community of scholars. New York: Vintage.

Goodman, P. (1970). New Reformation. New York: Random House.

Hirsch, E.D. (1987). Cultural literacy. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Keynes, J.M. (1936). General theory of employment, interest and money. London: Macmillan.

Kleibard, H.M. (1986). The struggle for the American curriculum: 1893-1958. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Kozol, J. (1967). Death at an early age. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Postman, N. (1982). The disappearance of childhood. New York: Delacorte Press.

Postman, N. & C. Weingartner, (1969) Teaching as a subversive activity. New York: Delacorte Press.

Ravitch, D. & C. E. Finn, (1987). What do our 17-year-olds know? New York: Harper and Row.

Roszak, T. (1969). The making of a counter-culture. New York: Doubleday.

Rousseau, J.-J. (1911) Émile. trans. Barbara Foxley. London: Dent. (First published 1762.).

Young, M. (1971). Knowledge and control: New directions for the sociology of education. London: Collier-Macmillan.


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