Throughout history, education has been experienced fundamentally as an institutionalised teaching and learning process in which societies attempt to impart knowledge and skills deemed valuable to them; either overtly or inadvertently, this process implicitly entails imposing upon the individual the traditions, norms, and taboos of conventional culture. Education in the higher sense, however, entails the development of advanced literacy skills, essential reasoning abilities, sound ethical principles, and, for many, refined aesthetic sensitivities; it also entails the development of the individual in his or her own right, in conjunction with contributing to a more egalitarian in the world.
In addition to the natural ongoing conflict between education as maintaining dominant cultural ideologies, and education as cultivating reasonable ways of living, tension has always existed in schooling between, first, addressing the needs and desires of the individual and, second, moulding the desires of the individual in service to community (however such service and community may be defined within a given period). Perceiving systems of education as mechanisms to advance the social conventions and rules of a society, or, conversely, to pander to the whims, caprices, and impulses of students, can be – and often is – taken to the extreme.
At all times in history, within and among cultures and countries, teachers and administrators in educational systems vary widely in wisdom, insight, and understanding; accordingly, they approach teaching and learning through widely divergent and often conflicting worldviews. Further, at any given time and at any given place, the quality of schooling will depend upon many variables – including political, cultural, religious, economic.
Enlightened educators, aware that the norms in any given society will likely fall below the best thinking humans may command, will help students reach for the uppermost ideals, modes of living, ethical practices, and cultural sensitivities of which they are capable. This cannot be done through a passive approach, but requires that teachers help students learn to discipline and regulate their thoughts, take active command of their wills, and control their passions and emotions for the good. A true drawing-out of the best in students requires that they learn to actively and systematically correct faulty reasoning as they seek to develop their intellects as well as their emotional lives. (see Socratic Questioning and Critical Thinking). This entails learning to persevere through difficulties to achieve superior levels of creative and critical thought. It means learning to reason empathically within the viewpoints of others, to become well-informed about important and relevant issues, to be comfortable with divergent opinions and perspectives with a willingness to understand them, and to be moved by the best reasoning no matter from whom such reasoning emanates. It entails learning to distinguish at all times between what is known to be true without doubt, what is merely thought to be true but lacks sufficient evidence, what is known not to be true, what cannot be known at present, and what perhaps can never be known. It means following objective truth wherever it can be found, even when this means changing one’s beliefs and ways of living. It requires confidence in the highest forms and levels of reasoning as the best path for people to pursue if they are to achieve the utmost ground of which societies are capable. It entails pursuing the highest standards in human life and reaching for the highest ethical practices on the path toward becoming persons of integrity. And, again, for many people, it entails advancing cultural and aesthetic intellectual pursuits that capture sublime forms of living in music, art, and literature. It means living a life that is most rational, laudable, and fulfilling. It requires high-level thought within every important domain of human life.
Eminent thinkers who have commented on education through the ages frequently distinguish between education properly so-called, and mere ‘schooling’, when the latter embodies propagandising rather than fostering appreciation for objective reality and the seeking of sound intellectual and ethical ground. To benefit from the thinking of these distinguished thinkers, it is helpful to consider the most insightful classic literature that illuminates characteristics of the educated person and the cultivated mind (see the section ‘Classical Contributions to Education’ herein).