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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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We may begin with the word “education.” Through
the Latin it is related both to the notion of bringing
up or rearing and to that of bringing out or leading
forth, but during the centuries its meaning, and that
of its equivalents in other languages, has become even
more complex. In relatively recent times, “education”
has come to stand, as “philosophy” and “psychology”
do, for a discipline or field of studies, once called
“pedagogics,” often set up as a department or school
within a college or university, and thought of as subject
matter to be taught and developed by further research.
One of our tendencies is to make everything just an-
other subject in the educational curriculum, and we
have now done this with education itself.

In some uses, however, “education” stands, as it
always did until recently, not for the discipline just
referred to, but for the enterprise it studies and reflects
on. In this sense, which is the more important one for
the history of ideas, education is not a study or field
of inquiry but an activity or endeavor of a very differ-
ent kind, one that is related to the discipline of educa-
tion and the disciplines supporting it (philosophy, psy-
chology, etc.) in something like the way in which
building bridges and rockets is related to what is done
in engineering schools and science classrooms and
laboratories. This enterprise needs theory and science
to guide it, once it has developed beyond unreflective
practice, and it is the task of the discipline, with the
help of other disciplines, to provide this. But it is itself
a kind of action, not of theory or science. What makes
it interesting for the history of ideas, however, is the
ideas—the concepts and theories—behind it, and espe-
cially the fact that both it and they have involved so
many other fields, including philosophy, that are not
themselves primarily concerned with education.

For, as Moses Hadas says, “... education is man's
most important enterprise” (Old Wine, New Bottles


[1963], p. 3). If we include self-education, then on it
depends “all that makes a man”; everything that raises
man above or puts him ahead of the other animals.
As Kant put it, “Man can only become man by educa-
tion. He is merely what education makes of him”
(Education [1960], p. 3). The example of wolf-children
shows this, though it has always been true. It is only
recently that someone was able to add that education
is also man's biggest business—and, indeed, educators
are beginning to use language borrowed from com-
merce and industry. We even speak now of “interna-
tional education,” and, as noted, have whole schools
and institutes to develop and teach the discipline of
education. The economics of education has become an
important study, and people debate the question
whether education is a profession.

Even if we consider only formal instruction, it is not
too much to say that the enterprise of education either
has come to involve everyone alive or is expected to,
that every other human endeavor of any importance
depends on and is served by it, and that almost every
other such enterprise is stimulated by it and plays a
role with respect to it, either as a source for its prem-
isses and methods, as part of its curriculum, or as one
of its aims. In short, the idea of education behind it,
if there is one, is one of the oldest and most important
energizing and organizing ideas in Western culture—
ranking with those of government, morality, science,
and technology.

The word “idea” may stand either for a concept or
for a doctrine or proposition. Thus, “the idea of
progress” may denote either the concept of a certain
kind of change, i.e., a constant change for the better,
or the belief that history actually embodies a change
of that kind. And “an idea of man” may mean either
a concept of man as a certain kind of animal or being,
e.g., as a rational animal or featherless biped, or a belief
or set of beliefs about such an animal or being, e.g.,
the Christian idea of man. Coming to the phrase “idea
of education,” we find that it has at least four uses:
(1) “the idea of education” may mean either (a) the
concept of education, or (b) the belief or faith in edu-
cation; (2) “an idea of education” may denote either
(a) a concept of education, i.e., a suggested definition
of education, or (b) a belief or set of beliefs about
education, about its aims, forms, means, etc. A large
part of our task is to analyze, perhaps somewhat
roughly but still helpfully, the four categories thus
distinguished. Those referred to in (1a) and (2a) can
be discussed together, for an idea of education that
really proposes a definition of education is simply an
attempt to give an analysis of the idea of education.

It may be argued at once that there is no such thing
as the idea or concept of education that underlies or
defines the educational enterprise, that there are only
ideas of education such as are referred to in (2a) and
(2b), for example, President Garfield's idea of education
as a log with a student on one end and Mark Hopkins
on the other. In fact, this is virtually what T. S. Eliot
contends, coming to the conclusion that “education
does not appear to be definable” (To Criticize the Critic,
and other Writings
[1965], p. 120). Actually, he is closer
to the truth when he says, somewhat in passing, that
we all mean by education some training of the mind
or body (p. 75). It is true that the term “education”
is ambiguous and vague, or “wobbly” as Eliot so nicely
puts it, but its uses do have more clarity and unity
than he recognizes. The enterprise of education, as his
own passing remark suggests, consists in all forms and
places of activity in which some individual or group
fosters or seeks to foster in some individual or group
some ability, belief, knowledge, habit, skill, trait of
character, or “value,” and does so by the use of certain
methods. There is always someone doing the educating,
someone being educated, something being fostered in
the second by the first, by some method or combination
of methods.

Thus we can and do think of education in different
but related ways: (1) as the activity of the one doing
the educating, the act or process of educating or teach-
engaged in by the educator, (2) as the process or
experience of being educated or learning that goes on
in the one being educated, and (3) as the result pro-
duced in the one being educated by the double process
of educating and being educated, i.e., the combination
of abilities, etc., that are produced in him or that are
possessed by him when he has been educated. In these
three uses of “education” we are referring to the en-
terprise of education in one way or another, but we
also think of education in a fourth way, namely, (4)
as the discipline or study discussed earlier.

Two comments are in order. (a) The individual or
group doing the educating and the one being educated
may be the same, as they are in any process of self-
education. (b) Education in sense (4) can be defined
as the study of (1), (2), and (3); education in sense (3)
as the result of (1) and (2); and education in sense (2)
as the reverse side of (1). Thus, though the four senses
are distinct, there is a nice kind of unity among them.

It will be convenient to use the word “disposition”
to denote all of the abilities, beliefs, habits, knowledges,
skills, traits, or “values” that education may seek to
foster by activities of the kinds just indicated, as Dewey
sometimes does, though he elsewhere prefers the term
“habit.” This is a somewhat extended and unusual use
of the word “disposition,” since it means designating
as dispositions not only things like cheerfulness, but
also things like an ability to act, a knowledge of


physics, or a belief in God or education. But we need
some single term here and any ordinary word we
choose must be extended to cover the very varied
things under discussion.

We may say, then, that the idea of education is the
idea of someone fostering dispositions in someone by
activities of certain sorts. More formally, the idea of
education may be at least partly explicated as follows:

X educates Y only if X fosters disposition W in Y
by method Z. Strictly, of course, this is an explication
only of education in sense (1), but we have already
seen that education in the other three senses can be
defined in terms of this one. To this extent the formula
just given does represent a concept that may be called
the idea of education. However, we do not yet have
a complete analysis of this concept; to achieve this we
must know something more, something about the
ranges of the variables involved. May we put just
anything in the places of X and Y, any disposition in
the place of W, and any method in the place of Z,
and still say that education is going on? Rousseau
(writing in 1762) talks as if we may when he says that
education comes to us from three sources, from nature,
from men, and from things, since they all do something
for us (Émile [1962], p. 11). It should be observed that
our question here is not normative but conceptual. For
example, we are not asking, as if education were al-
ready defined, what dispositions it should cultivate or
what methods it should use; we are still defining it and
are asking whether any restrictions on the dispositions
that might be cultivated or the means that might be
employed are to be built into the very concept of
education (i.e., put into our definition).

In reply R. S. Peters has argued very cogently that,
unless we extend the term education as Rousseau does,
we would not say that X is educating Y if he is fostering
undesirable and morally objectionable dispositions or
using undesirable and morally objectionable methods;
for example, if he is helping Y to form bad habits and
false beliefs, or if he is using harmful drugs, brain-
washing, or hypnotic suggestion (Concept of Education
[1967], pp. 1-6). This seems to be correct. It is true
we may say that what X is doing then is “bad educa-
tion,” but we would be more likely to say it is not
education at all. Education is, normally at least, a
laudatory term and its laudatoriness seems to be built
into it. If one says that X is educating Y, one must
be thinking that X is cultivating desirable and morally
unobjectionable dispositions (excellences) by similar
means. Education must foster dispositions and use
methods that are desirable and morally unobjection-
able, or at least regarded as such, otherwise it is not

Does the concept of education impose any further
restrictions on the dispositions and methods to be
pursued? May or should we build anything more about
them into the definition of education? It is sometimes
assumed that education is by definition concerned only
to promote knowledge and intellectual excellences.
Thus, R. M. Hutchins writes, “Education implies
teaching. Teaching implies knowledge” (The Higher
[1962], p. 66). And again, “Education deals
with the development of the intellectual powers of
men. Their moral and spiritual powers are the sphere
of the family and the church” (Conflict in Education
[1953], p. 69).

One can, of course, so define education, but it is a
rather arbitrary limitation of the concept, since we do
ordinarily include moral and religious education within
it. If one says that such cultivation of moral and spirit-
ual powers is not education, but something else, how-
ever desirable it may be, one not only rejects our usual
way of speaking; one forces us to look for some other
term that covers the whole idea we have throughout
history been using “education” and its equivalents to

Peters has also sought to build further criteria into
the concept of education. He argues that education
is going on only if X is initiating Y into some form
of activity, some body of knowledge or mode of con-
duct that is governed by public standards enshrined
in a public language to which both teacher and learner
must give allegiance. Education “consists in initiating
others into activities, modes of conduct and thought
which have standards written into them by reference
to which it is possible to act, think, and feel with
varying degrees of skill, relevance, and taste” (Educa-
tion as Initiation
[1964], p. 41).

Peters contends, furthermore, that education implies
that the teacher and learner both know what they are
doing, at least in an embryonic way, and care about
it; that, though education does include the cultivation
of moral and spiritual powers as well as intellectual
ones, it always entails some kind of cognitive or intel-
lectual development, some kind of “knowing-that” as
well as “knowing-how”; and that the methods it uses
must be appropriate to the dispositions involved in the
kind of initiation described, as well as compatible with
the learner's knowing what he is doing and caring
about it. This is a more adequate view than that of
Hutchins, and one is tempted to accept it, at least if
it can be made to cover the cultivation of bodily skills,
manual training, aesthetic education, and vocational
preparation, all of which we ordinarily cover by the
word “education.”

On the other hand, it is not entirely clear that Peters'
definition will cover all of these things. Moreover, he
appears to be thinking that the forms of activity and


thought into which X is to initiate Y must have been
developed in the past and in some public way, and
so, though he does try to provide for the teaching of
critical thinking, he seems to exclude from education
the possibility that X might initiate Y into some new
mode of activity or thought with standards not yet
publicly accepted—or possibly into some “form of
Life” that involves no standards at all or only those
Y comes to regard as his “own thing” or commits
himself to by some act of “choice” or “decision.” Such
possibilities seem to be envisaged by those who are
presently advocating a “new” or “free” education, and
it does seem a bit arbitrary to say that what they are
envisaging just is not a form of education, even if it
turns out to be desirable and morally unobjectionable
(as it very well may not).

The much-discussed question of the relation of in-
doctrination to education is relevant here. Indoc-
trination appears to be one way in which the young
might be made to acquire at least some of the disposi-
tions Peters has in mind, though he may be meaning
to rule out its use in education by his criterion that
the learner must see, if only as a child, what he is doing
and why it is desirable. What seems crucial in the
debate about it, however, is not whether indoctrination
passes this criterion but whether its use is desirable
and morally unobjectionable. Those who think it is
never so tend to deny that indoctrination is a form
of education, while those who think it sometimes is
so tend to hold that indoctrination is a kind of educa-
tion, even if they limit its use. This suggests that we
rule indoctrination and other doubtful methods out of
education by definition, if and only if we regarde them
as undesirable or morally objectionable. Should we rule
them out of education on any other grounds? To say
no here has the disadvantage that, if we find promoting
good dispositions by drug, pill, electrode, or hypnotism
to be feasible and unobjectionable, then we must rec-
ognize such methods as properly educational, which
many are admittedly reluctant to do. On the other
hand, perhaps we are reluctant to recognize them as
educational only because we are certain that they are
morally or otherwise objectionable—or simply so
incapable of producing desirable dispositions as not to
deserve consideration at all.

So far as the ranges of W and Z go, then, it is not
clear that we should build into the definition of educa-
tion anything more than the requirement that the
dispositions sought and the means employed must be
desirable on some ground or other and morally unob-
jectionable. As for the conceptual question about the
ranges of X and Y, it seems fairly clear that we would
think that X is educating Y only if X and Y both have
minds of a human level. It is true that Rousseau says
we are educated by nature and things as well as by
men, and that his way of speaking is not entirely
unnatural. Still he is stretching the range of X too far.
It is only when “exempt from public haunts” that we
find “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,”
and “sermons in stones.” We do, of course, “learn” from
our experience with things, but to call them our
“teachers” is surely some kind of metonymy at best;
if there is a teacher here it is ourselves. What Heidi's
grandfather learned from the eagle he taught himself.
As for Rousseau's talk about education by nature—this
is simply a mistake. By it he means the fruition of
innate dispositions that would take place in our lives
if it were not for the action of men and things on us.
But automatic realization of dispositions when no one
is doing anything to bring it about, not even oneself,
is not education but something else. Rousseau's philos-
ophy of education is a philosophy of education only
because he thinks that we have to do something to
prevent unnatural dispositions from being formed
through our experience of men and things. This pre-
vention is a kind of educational activity. But the natu-
ral evolution of innate dispositions as such is not, even
if they are desirable, as Rousseau assumes.

Some would say that X may be a superhuman being;
in The Idea of Christian Education (1957, pp. 255-65),
S. F. Bayne says that the basic idea of Christian educa-
tion is that God is our teacher. Now, if God really
does, by some special act on his part (and not just
through our own use of our natural faculties), “reveal”
things to us, then He can be said to teach us. If X
reveals to Y the way to set up a tent he is teaching
Y something. Thus the Psalmist writes, “Teach me thy
way, O Lord; I will walk in thy truth...,” and, again,
“Teach me good judgment and knowledge....” One
may then say that God educates man, if one chooses,
and if one believes that such special divine revelation
is available to us. It seems better, however, to follow
Plato's Meno in limiting the term “educating” to
human activities like practicing and instructing, and
to think of God's acts of revelation and regeneration
as “gifts,” as Christianity itself usually does—as some
kind of divine aid to education rather than as education
itself. This would, among other things, accord with
Aquinas' doctrine that faith, hope, and love are not
acquired by teaching but by divine infusion. One can
still argue then, as religious people often have, that
education is important only because it is necessary or
at least helpful as a preparation for God's act of grace;
because it enables one to understand His revelation,
or because it equips one to do His work in the world.

If what has been said is accepted, then it follows
that the concept of education is a normative concept
that is open-textured at two points, since it restricts


the ranges of W and Z to what is desirable and morally
unobjectionable or judged to be so, but imposes no
other restrictions upon them. It also follows that all
education is, strictly speaking, “education of men”—of
and by, if not necessarily for, men—that the idea of
education is the idea of a distinctively human activity
or enterprise of forming desirable dispositions or
excellences by morally unobjectionable means.

Whatever may be thought of this discussion of the
conceptual ranges of X, Y, W, and Z, it remains true
that the idea of education is the idea of an enterprise
in which someone fosters certain dispositions in some-
one by methods of certain sorts. We may now observe
that anyone who consciously embarks upon this enter-
prise must not only have this concept, he must also
have certain beliefs or postulates—a certain minimal
philosophy, if you will. This is made clear by the
discussion in Plato's Meno. These presuppositions are:
(a) that some set of dispositions is desirable, (b) that
they are not innate or just naturally or automatically
acquired (as Rousseau thought they might be), (c) that
they are not all acquired wholly by luck or by divine
gift, (d) that they may (some of them perhaps wholly,
others at least in part) be acquired or passed on by
humanly instituted activities of an educational kind,
e.g., by practice or instruction, though possibly only
“wid a little bit o' luck” or a bounteous divine aid.
Actually, there is another presupposition, not envisaged
in the Meno, namely, (e) that they are not simply
created in oneself by an act of choice or decision, out
of whole cloth as it were (as so many seemed to think
in the 1960's).

One might, of course, conceive of education without
making these assumptions, but then it would be the
idea of a purely hypothetical endeavor. Any X who
actually engages in the enterprise of education can do
it only under these presuppositions, for, if they are
false, then education is either impossible, unnecessary,
or so uncertain of success as to be pointless. X may
be relatively optimistic or relatively pessimistic about
education, but if he engages in it at all, he must make
these assumptions.

We see then that there is such a thing as the idea
of education and that it is possible to give something
more nearly approaching a definition of it than T. S.
Eliot realized. To say that X educates or is educating
Y is to say at least that X is fostering desirable and
morally unobjectionable dispositions in Y by the use
of methods that are also desirable and morally unob-
jectionable, or at least that X is cultivating dispositions
in Y by certain methods. This idea (concept) of educa-
tion is common to all of the different ideas (doctrines,
theories) of education held by Plato, Kant, Dewey,
President Garfield, or the Chinese. They all mean by
“education” (or its equivalents in their languages) a
process, involving an X (educator) and a Y (educated),
of forming desirable dispositions by desirable methods.
They have different beliefs about education—about
what it should be like—but they mean the same thing
by it. There are also different kinds of education—
physical, moral, vocational, public, etc.—but these all
involve the forming of desirable dispositions by desir-
able methods. The same basic concept underlies all
kinds and theories of education. All kinds and theories
of education have the same five basic presuppositions.

We may end our account of the concept of education
with a word about its emergence in the history of
Western thought. Eliot talks as if our notion of educa-
tion has undergone a kind of evolution through the
centuries, but all he shows is that we have had changing
views about what X, Y, Z, and W should be, which
is true but does not mean that our basic concept itself
has changed. Actually, according to the above account,
the concept of education was fully conceived when
some individual or people first consciously judged that
a certain set of dispositions was desirable, that they
were not innate or automatically acquired, nor matters
of fortune or divine gift, and that they could (some
of them at least in part) be acquired or passed on by
some human program of teaching or practice. Just
when and where this was we cannot say for certain,
even if we consider only the Western world. We must
suppose that some kind of education or paideia has
been going on since the beginning of human history.
The self-making of man, of which Kant speaks, may
not be as old as the hills but it must be as old as man.
Education must then have been in the world before
the concept of it came to anyone's consciousness in
an explicit way. As Eliot says, “... a long tradition
and many educational institutions preceded the time
at which the question, 'What is education?' needed to
be asked” (p. 121).

By Pindar's day, however, antidemocratic spokesmen
were arguing that some men have aretē (“excellence”)
by nature and others do not, and that for the former
education is unnecessary, while for the others it is of
no avail. Here we find the concept of education as we
have defined it becoming clear. It came completely
out in the open in the days of Socrates and the Sophists,
when the Greek air was full of debate about education,
as is shown by the discussion Plato purports to describe
in the Protagoras and Meno about the teachability of
aretē. For Meno begins by asking how aretē is acquired
and he lists four alternatives: (a) that it is acquired by
teaching, (b) that it is acquired by practice, (c) that
it is acquired by fortune or divine gift, (d) that it is
possessed by nature. The ostensible conclusion is that
(c) is true and hence that aretē is unhappily not


acquired by education, but the point is that education
is being definitely conceived as the attempt to foster
excellences by such methods as teaching and practice.
Thus the idea of education is here essentially complete
and its postulates understood. This discussion, when-
ever it first took place, marks the real beginning of
the philosophy of education. Indeed, it took place
precisely because philosophy was beginning to take a
hand in the educational enterprise.