chapter  6
11 Pages

Social philosophy of education

There are, however, social theories of education with which the philosopher is more centrally concerned, those which are prescriptive in character, which argue that education ought to serve certain social ends whether in fact it does so or not. Such theories are ideological theories. The theories of Plato, Durkheim and Dewey mentioned above have, besides a descriptive function, a prescriptive function. Plato thinks that education ought to bring about the kind of society outlined in The Republic; Durkheim, that education ought to aim at a stable and cohesive society; and Dewey, that the desirable outcome of education would be a democratic and cooperative way of life. Prescriptive, or ideological, theories of education enter largely into present-day thinking about education. It is often argued, for example, that education should aim at producing a society of equals, that there should

be ‘equality’ in education, or ‘equality of opportunity’. Again, it is argued that education is a means to freedom and that there ought to be ‘education for freedom’ or ‘freedom in education’. There is a continuing argument for democracy in education, that education ought to be directed towards the establishment or presentation of a democratic way of life, and that to this end education ought to be ‘democratic’ in character. This consideration of what education ought to be is quite distinct from the consideration of what education actually does do, although social theorists, like Durkheim and Dewey, do not always clearly distinguish between them. These prescriptive social theories of education are really general theories of an ideological kind and the philosopher of education is concerned with their credentials and acceptability. In this concluding chapter three social theories of education will be examined briefly: the theory that education should be concerned with equality, that education should be about freedom, and that education should serve the cause of democracy. A detailed working out of these ideological theories and an examination of all the assumptions involved in them would be well beyond the scope of this book. This chapter will deal only with the root idea contained in each: the ideas of equality, freedom and democracy, in so far as they are relevant to and may be justified in educational practice.

One great difficulty in dealing with equality as a theory is its exasperating vagueness. The term is often used in political slogans of the ‘all men are equal’ kind, but it is rarely made very clear what is meant in saying this. It is perhaps best to begin by recognising that a, perhaps the, basic meaning of ‘equal’ is ‘the same’ or ‘the same in some specified sense’. Two lines of equal length are lines of the same length, two men of equal height are the same height, and so on. This is a straightforward and relatively uncomplicated meaning, the meaning usually understood outside of a political or philosophical discussion. Now, if this is what ‘equal’ means, the slogan ‘all men are equal’ is in most cases false, since men are not in any interesting sense the same. Of course, it is more than probable that the egalitarian who asserts that all men are equal is not trying to say that all men are the same. He may say that the purport of the slogan is not that men are the same descriptively, but that they ought to be treated the same, in the same way. This avoids the empirical error but runs into other difficulties. For if anyone seriously asserts that everyone ought to be treated the same, or alike, it is sufficient to point out that to do so would run counter to certain other practical principles most people hold. We do not think, for example, that innocent men should be treated as we treat criminals, that sick people should be treated as we treat healthy people, that children should be fed and clothed as we think adults should be. Treating all alike would offend against our notions of appropriateness. People have different needs and we recognise that this should be borne in mind. It would also offend against our notions of fairness. People have different needs, but they also have different deserts, and these too, we think, should be recognised and provided for. A strict egalitarian principle would, presumably, require that men should be treated alike, notwithstanding their different needs and deserts. Of course the egalitarian, faced with the logic of his position, would be very likely to declare, once more, that this wasn’t what he meant at all, and charity would require us to accept his disclaimer. He might then put forward a view more acceptable to our moral and commonsense notions, that is, that men should be treated the same only when their needs