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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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The third part of our task is to make, in the light
of our analyses thus far, some clarifications of and
comments on the “history of educational ideas” and
on the chief issues involved in it. Such a history should
be distinguished, more than it sometimes is, from a
history of education. The former is a history of certain
ideas, of certain concepts and theories, and is a part
of the general history of thought or ideas; the latter
is a history of certain actions, institutions, and prac-
tices, and is a part of the general history of what human
beings have done and how they did it. The two histories
are, of course, very intimately connected, but they
should not be confused.

In any case, however, a complete history of theories
of education will include, in one way or another,
histories of the four kinds of “ideas of education”
distinguished early in Section I. The history of the idea
of education would be the story, if it can be told, of
the emergence into full consciousness of the concept
of education we tried to analyze in the rest of that
Section. The closely related history of proposed
analyses or definitions of that concept would be a part
of the history of analytical philosophy of education,
and so might be of interest both for the theory of
definition and for the history of ideas. It would cer-
tainly appear, if what was said in Section I is correct,
that many proposed definitions of education are faulty,
and that many apparent definitions are really disguised
normative theories about what the aims and means of
education should be, in which case they belong to the
history of such theories.

The third of our histories would be a history of “the
belief (or faith) in education” that has characterized
some thinkers and epochs in our culture, and it or parts
of it have often been told. Here we can only analyze
the belief. It is not a normative belief about the ends
or means of education, but a factual conviction about
its efficacy and results, such as Socrates sometimes
appeared not to have. It entails a belief in the presup-
positions of education formulated in Section I, but it
goes beyond them, not just to a confidence that educa-
tion can in fact produce the dispositions it seeks to
produce, but to a conviction that the acquisition of
these dispositions will have certain hoped for results.
In modern times it has been associated with the idea
of progress, and has taken the form of a belief that,
through the spread of education, man as a race can
and will progress steadily either toward material pros-
perity or toward some more ideal goal.

It may, however, take two more individualistic
forms: the belief that education is the key to an indi-
vidual's getting ahead or succeeding in the world, or
the belief that education is his way to a more ideal
happiness, to perfection, or to salvation. An example
of the last is Plato's view in the Symposium that the
right kind of child-leading will lead him to immortality.
In effect, then, the belief in education splits into four
beliefs, viz., two kinds of social faith, one idealistic and
one materialistic, and two corresponding kinds of indi-
vidual faith. Perhaps we should also recognize a fifth
form of the belief—the belief in education as a pana-


cea, said to be especially characteristic of Americans,
at least until the 1960's.

It is, however, especially about the history of
normative theories of education that we are now con-
cerned. Perhaps it is possible to find implicit theories
of this sort in Homer and other descriptions of Greek
education, but, at any rate, more conscious and fuller
theories arose in Greece through a conjunction of two
developments—the rise of philosophy or what Aristo-
phanes called the “Think Shop” and tried to laugh out
of existence, and the breakdown of the traditional or
“old” educational system. In a real sense, philosophy
and thinking about education arose together; philoso-
phers at once set themselves up as teachers and critics,
and education gave them a profession and problems
to think about.

Between the many ideas of education that have
appeared in our history there have been a great many
issues of debate of various kinds, more or less inde-
pendent of or interdependent on one another, but all
related in some manner to our schema of analysis. We
must now try to identify and analyze them, make some
historical remarks about them, and relate them to our
schema—all as an aid to understanding the issues and
their history, and to our own thinking about them.

Some of these “great debates” have been more or
less perennial; others can be roughly dated in the sense
that they peaked early or only recently. One could then
take them up in some kind of chronological order. One
can, however, also take them up in a more logical order
dictated by their relation to our schema of questions.
Here they will be dealt with in a mixture of these ways.
Some of them are specifically educational, since what
is at issue is some normative question explicitly about
education, but others are meta-normative rather than
normative—the debate is about the method to be used
in determining the answer, say, to question (2) in Sec-
tion II, or about the kinds of factual premisses that
are admissible. Still others are about substantive factual
or normative questions that are not specifically about
education, though they are relevant to it. In each case,
our concern here is primarily analytical and second-
arily historical; we cannot attempt to settle the issues

We may begin with three ancient debates.

(1) The discussion in the Meno and Protagoras has
already been referred to. Is a virtue somehow amenable
to cultivation by education or is it not? The question
was not whether education is effective in fostering any
desirable dispositions whatsoever. This is a much more
radical question, which might perhaps also be dis-
cussed, but Socrates had no doubt that some knowledge
and skills could be taught. The question was about a
particular set of desirable dispositions, namely, those
the Greeks included in aretē, and about the efficacy
of traditional methods of moral education in promoting
them (one feels that Socrates has some notion of a new
method that will be effective where the old ones were
not). But it can be asked for any other proposed set
of desirable dispositions and for any other proposed
methods of education—and one might wish to add that
it makes a difference who the pupil and the teacher
are (Plato obviously thought that Socrates could teach
virtue to at least some young men). If a certain disposi-
tion cannot be fostered in anyone by anyone by any
educational method, it cannot realistically be taken as
a goal in education anywhere. Even in his own context
Socrates did not state the question accurately enough,
as Protagoras partly sees. For he does not distinguish,
as we have seen one must, between asking whether
education is necessary for the acquisition of virtue,
whether it is sufficient, or whether it is relevant at all.
At most Socrates' crude evidence would show only that
it is not sufficient, not that it is not necessary or helpful
as far as it goes, in at least some cases. His evidence
does not even show that it is not sufficient in some

Before we leave the Meno it will be interesting to
notice that later theories of education have approxi-
mated more or less closely to one or another of the
alternatives, which, accepted without qualification,
would make the great enterprise of education “turn
awry, and lose the name of action.” This is possible
within the framework of the five postulates of any
educational endeavor (Section I). Thus, Rousseau and
the followers of nature in education stay as close as
possible to the alternative that the dispositions to be
sought in education are in us by nature and are auto-
matically realized if nothing interferes; traditional
Christian theory holds that the most desirable disposi-
tions—faith, hope, and love—are mainly or wholly a
matter of divine gift; and Kant makes the most crucial
of them—good will or moral virtue—a matter of free
noumenal choice that is not determined by anything
that goes on in time or space, while the existentialists
and their followers come close to making such a “deci-
sion” a necessary and sufficient condition of the posses-
sion of any disposition whatsoever, thus rendering the
very possibility of education problematic.

(2) The debate highlighted by the Meno was con-
nected with another which Plato calls “the ancient war
between the poets and the philosophers,” itself high-
lighted in his Republic and in Aristophanes' The
Ostensibly this was a debate over the question
who should teach, that is, who should be the ultimate
educator—the poet, who was also the theologian and
historian of Greece, and who depends on divine in-
spiration, or the philosopher, who was also the scientist


of Greece, and, who depends on reason or thinking.
It may also be thought of as an issue between two
“unified curricula,” two unified sets of dispositions,
both aiming at truth and virtue, but involving the two
radically different approaches indicated. In both of
these aspects, it has been continued ever since, espe-
cially in the patristic and medieval periods, by the
debate in educational theory between the theologians
on one side and philosophers and scientists on the
other. The high point on the philosophical side was
reached in the educational thinking of Socrates, Plato,
and Aristotle—or, as some would say in the twentieth
century, in that of Dewey. Aquinas' philosophy of
education represents the most influential synthesis of
the opposing positions. By that time, however, what
we usually call poetry had virtually dropped out of
contention, except that its study continued to be a part
of the educational curriculum, as it still is. Now its
scope has been extended to include modern literature
and all of the arts, and, as Lionel Trilling has pointed
out (Beyond Culture [1965], p. 219), in spite of the
recent conflict of “the two cultures” it bids fair, for
good or for ill, to be the most important educational
influence of the period since World War II.

The debate had another aspect in terms of our
schema, for it also involves the question of the source
of the basic premisses of any educational theory. Do
they come from some kind of inspiration or revelation
or are they reached by some human effort of critical
and systematic reflection? Here the question is not
whether we are to teach poetry or philosophy, religion
or science, but whether our conclusions about what
to teach, whatever it may be, must be grounded on
premisses from one source or from the other. This again
is an issue that we still have with us, as Eliot's essay
shows. And it is not only religious thinkers who put
themselves on the side of the “poets”; a basic anti-
rationalism infects a large part of contemporary edu-
cational thinking, especially that of the very “newest”
writers—and it is closely connected with developments
in the arts.

(3) A third ancient debate concerning education,
related to both of the others, took place between the
Sophists and Socrates, and was continued by Plato,
Aristotle, and other philosophers on one side, and
Isocrates, Quintilian, and other orators and rhetoricians
on the other, with Cicero seeking a synthesis of sorts
(one might think of this as one aspect of a three-sided
war between poets, philosophers, and sophists). At issue
here, for one thing, was Protagoras' thesis that educa-
tion should be based on a study of the poets. But more
important was the Sophist tendency to conceive of
aretē or excellence as consisting of a number of skills,
which they claimed to be able to teach, and which
could be used to achieve some end or other, or could
be enjoyed for their own sakes, but which had no
essential reference to truth or moral virtue. For
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle skills that could be used
for or against the true or the good were unimportant;
what really mattered in education was the moral and
intellectual virtues proper, which they conceived of
as essentially directed to the good or the true.

This opposition represents one of the main water-
sheds in the history of educational thinking, for very
different visions of education emerge on the two sides.
It too is still with us in the question whether the
emphasis in education should be on method or skill
or on knowledge and truth. It is not unrelated to the
question of liberal versus vocational education; at any
rate, many “consumers,” if not thinkers about educa-
tion, seem to conceive of it as a tool or a toy, much
as the Sophists did.

What was said is roughly true of the Sophists, but
it will hardly do for the orators, Isocrates and Quin-
tilian, since they thought of the orator not only as the
possessor of a number of skills, but as essentially con-
cerned with truth and virtue. They were, however,
relatively antiphilosophical, and did not make anything
much in the way of either philosophy or theology a
part of education as they conceived of it, as Plato,
Aristotle, and other philosophers did. For them, edu-
cation centered, not in philosophy or theology, but in
the liberal arts, the trivium and quadrivium of the
Middle Ages—which were roughly speaking originated
by the Sophists, and came to form the perennial cur-
riculum of education. For it was not the poets or the
philosophers who won that ancient war, or even the
theologians though they ruled for centuries, but the
Sophists and their followers, those who believed in a
curriculum consisting of a number of arts, disciplines,
or sciences.

Ultimately everything else was simply added to the
number. For long there were only the liberal arts and
classical studies, plus the faculties of law, medicine,
and theology; but slowly, in fact only recently, the
natural and social sciences, modern history, language,
and literature, and other arts, were added to the cur-
riculum—and many other things, including, as was
mentioned, education itself—with nothing dominating
the whole as the poets, philosophers, and theologians
had each hoped their subject would; though some now
think, as Herbert Spencer did (Education [1884], Ch.
I) and as C. P. Snow does (The Two Cultures, 1959),
that science ought to dominate if it does not do so
already. Given this conception of education, of course,
the main remaining questions are: Who studies which
subject and by what compulsion, if any, must he?

Thus these three Greek debates about education


were somewhat complex, involving a number of issues,
and, in one form or another, had important subsequent
histories. Let us now approach other issues in a more
logical manner.

(4) As we saw, the central problem in the theory
of education is question (2): What dispositions are to
be fostered? But this question immediately raises an-
other: How are we to determine what dispositions
education should foster? For some the answer is rela-
tively easy. They assume that education is to promote
the dispositions regarded as desirable by the society
in which it is going on. Or they look at the various
arts, disciplines, and sciences referred to a moment
ago—all there, like mountains to be climbed—and
juggle them into a curriculum or simply let students
“elect” from among them. Such approaches have their
practical advantages. But a less minimal theory of
education must give more of a rationale than this, and
how is it to proceed?

The usual method is to look for “the aims of educa-
tion.” But this method has been much criticized by
Dewey (Democracy and Education [1916], Chs. 4, 8,
18) and his followers and more recently by analytical
philosophers like Peters (Authority... [1959], Ch. 7).
Especially objected to is the notion that education has
an end beyond or external to itself. Aims in education,
and even criteria or principles of education, are not
under attack, only “aims of” or “external” to educa-
tion. For education is life and life can hardly have an
aim external to itself. Comment here must be brief.

To begin with, education in sense (1), i.e., the activity
of the educator, does and must have an end beyond
itself, viz., the fostering of a disposition in the one
being educated. There are criteria for determining
whether he is educating and principles according to
which he must act, but his actions must have an aim—a
proximate aim—to foster some ability, belief, knowl-
edge, skill, trait, or value. One may also say that the
aim of education in sense (1), as distinguished earlier,
is education in senses (2) and (3). The question is
whether it must have any aim beyond that of forming
desirable dispositions, whether the dispositions are
somehow means to something further. Some certainly
are, for example, the habit of brushing one's teeth. Here
the activity in which the disposition manifests itself
has value only or at least primarily as a means. The
same is true, as Aristotle argued, of the activities in
which any technē like a mastery of carpentry manifests
itself; they have an end, which is to build things like
houses. On the other hand, the exercise of some dispo-
sitions like an ability to play a flute or a knowledge
of geometry may or may not have an end beyond
itself—it may be engaged in simply for its own sake,
because it is worthwhile in itself. But even then one
may say that the earlier activity of the educator and
of the one being educated have the aim of putting the
latter in a position of being able to engage in those
activities at will, and so have an end beyond them-
selves, though not necessarily one external to the lat-
ter's life. Whether they must also have an end external
to his life, as Eliot (pp. 75, 109, 117) and Marrou think
(History of Education [1964], pp. 307f.), is another
question, the answer to which depends on one's most
basic factual and normative beliefs.

It remains true that one's ultimate normative prem-
isses need not be statements about aims or ends to be
pursued. They might be principles like Kant's first or
second forms of the categorical imperative, which
serve as the bases of his philosophy of education.
Which form they take depends on one's ethical theory.
Even so, it is hard to see how one can avoid saying
that some experiences and activities are worthwhile
in themselves or, as Dewey prefers to say, consum-
matory—and what is this but to say that we should
aim at having or engaging in them, and at helping
others to have or engage in them?

(5) Another meta-normative issue that runs through
the history of educational theory has to do with the
question concerning what kinds of premisses may or
must be appealed to in determining what dispositions
are to be formed by education: ethical, epistemological,
metaphysical, scientific, or theological. This issue has
already been touched on more than once, but we may
add that theories of education may be classified ac-
cording to the kinds of premisses they appeal to. Thus
a “scientistic” theory will ultimately appeal only to
scientific premisses, claiming, as Dewey does, that
ethical judgments rest or should rest on scientific ones.
A positivistic theory, like Mill's, may deny this claim,
but will insist that, apart from one's normative prem-
isses, one should appeal only to scientific ones. A reli-
gious theory would contend, as Eliot does, that theo-
logical premisses must, or at least may and should be
appealed to. And so on. It should be repeated, however,
that though the issues between such opposing views
are relevant to educational conclusions, and philoso-
phers of education must be prepared to discuss them,
they belong to philosophy generally, and not specifi-
cally to the philosophy of education.

(6) Another relatively abstract, though normative,
issue or group of issues, very crucial in the history of
educational ideas, is that between the Absolutists and
the Relativists. The Absolutists maintain that there is
a certain set of dispositions (they may differ about what
it is) that ought to be fostered by education, or by some
central part or kind of education (e.g., liberal or general
education), everywhere and at all times, in everyone
capable of acquiring these dispositions and to the ex-


tent to which he is capable of acquiring them. This
contention, of course, presupposes that human beings
all have the same basic nature and differ only in the
degree in which they have it (and in “accidental” ways,
like sex or color of skin), though one may accept this
presupposition and yet not be an Absolutist in educa-
tional theory—Aristotle accepts it (with some doubts
about barbarians, slaves, and women) but he holds that
education should be relative to the political consti-
tution of the state, and, even in the case of the ideal
state, offers rather different kinds of education to free-
men, slaves, workers, and women.

Though philosophers have a natural penchant for
being Absolutists when they write about education, it
is surprisingly hard to find good examples of this
position—was Plato an Absolutist?—but we may cite
R. M. Hutchins, M. J. Adler, and perhaps Kant (though
he too had doubts about women).

Relativists about education may be and have been
of many different kinds, depending on what they hold
education should be relative to. They all hold that no
important kind or part of education need or should
be the same everywhere and at all times, that every
kind or part of education of any significance must and
should vary according to some principle, i.e., should
cultivate different dispositions. The following princi-
ples at least have all had followings: (a) that education
should be relative to the desires or value-judgments
of the society in question, e.g., perhaps, H. I. Marrou
and W. H. Woodward; (b) that it should follow the
flag in the sense of varying with the political consti-
tution of the state, and cultivate, not “the virtues of
the good man” but “the virtues of the good citizen”
as defined by that constitution; this was Aristotle's view
and in places Rousseau's, and seems to be that of those
who think that American or democratic education must
take a different form from other educations, including
possibly Dewey; (c) that it should vary with vocation
or station in life, e.g., Rousseau in other places; (d)
that it should be relative to the historical situation in
which it goes on or to the problems facing society and
its members at the time, e.g., Theodore Brameld and
other “reconstructionists,” and, in some passages, P. H.
Phenix; (e) that it should be relative to individual
capacity, commitments, interests, needs, native dispo-
sitions, or decisions, e.g., Rousseau, in still other places,
and other proponents of “child-centered” education.

Further discussion is hardly possible, but a few com-
ments are necessary. This debate shows the central role
of political and social philosophy and of psychology
and conceptions of human nature. One may, of course,
hold some kind of combination of views, one for one
kind or part of education, and another for another. One
might, for example, be an Absolutist about liberal and
a Relativist about vocational education. One can also
be an Absolutist about the dispositions to be promoted,
but hold that the methods to be used are relative in
one of the ways indicated. If Dewey's view is not
wholly relativist in sense (3), then he is most likely
holding that all education should foster certain disposi-
tions (e.g., scientific intelligence) but that it should gear
its methods to the capacities and interests of the indi-
vidual child.

(7) One of the modern educational wars has been
what Dewey called “the case of Child vs. Curriculum”
that accompanied one of the four main revolutions in
the theory of education of modern times, the shift from
subject-centeredness to child-centeredness. We may
distinguish at least the following issues in this debate,
which is an aspect of the one just described: (a) Are
the dispositions to be fostered in a child to be deter-
mined by him, i.e., by his own choice or decision?
There is a strong tendency today to say yes to this
question—in existentialism, “the new morality,” “free”
education, and “do-your-own-thingism.” (b) Are these
dispositions to be determined by the educator but
wholly through a study of the child's desires, needs,
capacities, experience, situation, welfare, etc? If so, is
the educator, to consider only “present” interests, etc.,
or also the child's future? (c) Are they to be determined
by the educator and the educated jointly, by mutual
participation and agreement alone, no matter how
young the latter is? If not, at what age is the line to
be drawn and on what basis? (d) The question corre-
sponding to (a) about the methods to be used. (e) The
question corresponding to (b) about the methods to be
used. (f) The question corresponding to (c) about the
methods to be used. It should be observed that these
questions, some of which overlap, are normative and
must be answered, as indicated earlier, on the basis
of normative premisses from ethics and social philoso-
phy and factual premisses from the empirical sciences
and any other source thought to be available. In any
case, they are clearly the most pressing educational
questions of the present time. Closely related to them,
of course, is the question whether any part or kind
of education is to be compulsory or not.

(8) We saw that reasoned answers to question (2)
presuppose normative premisses stating the more ulti-
mate aims or principles of education, and that these
in turn depend on yet more basic normative premisses
that do not mention education, like the principle of
utility and Kant's categorical imperative. Here is a
large area for debate, of course, but since the basic
issues are not specifically educational, we can hardly
stop to look at them, except to say that they will be
of two kinds in a way that is not always noticed. We
must distinguish, at least prima facie, between what


is morally good or morally right and what is good in
a nonmoral sense; between the morally good life and
a life that is desirable, good, or worthwhile in itself
in the sense in which a pleasant, happy, contemplative
life, or a life of excellent activity or exercises of one's
powers, may and have been said to be the good life;
in this sense it is not a pleonasm to say, as many have,
that the morally virtuous life is the good or best life.

There is, of course, the view that the morally good
or right way for a person to live simply is to do what
will give him the good life in this sense, but this view
(ethical egoism) is only one among many possible posi-
tions, and a dubious one at that. Except on this view,
at any rate, there will be two kinds of ultimate norma-
tive issues, moral ones and nonmoral ones. The former
are illustrated by the debate in ethics between the
utilitarians, the ethical egoists, and deontologists like
Kant, the latter by the debate in value theory about
the good—whether it is pleasure, excellent activity,
virtue, self-realization, etc.

However these two sorts of issues are resolved, there
is likely to be agreement that education, considered
as a whole, should foster both the dispositions required
by or conducive to the moral life and those required
by or conducive to the good life, whatever these are.
The most serious disagreement with this position would
come from certain Relativists, e.g., from those who
hold, as Aristotle does, that the virtues of the good
citizen and those involved in the moral life or in the
good life do not coincide, and that, when they do not,
the former must be given precedence in education.
This is why Eliot, who rather surprisingly accepts the
principle of “the relativity of educational theory and
practice to a prevailing order” (p. 95), tries so hard
to show that the good citizen and the good man are
the same in any society. If one adds, as it is plausible
to do, that, inasmuch as being alive, healthy, and able
to make a living are conditions of leading a moral life
and of having a good one, education should also foster
certain physical and vocational dispositions. Then one
arrives at the threefold view of the aims of education
borrowed earlier from Eliot. Even if one accepts this
rather common view one is not out of the woods,
however; one must still wrestle, as Eliot so helpfully
does, with the problem of the interrelation and possible
conflict of the three aims, and also of the means of
realizing them. For example, one must decide what,
if anything, is the primary aim of education: character,
knowledge, excellence, the general good, personal ful-
filment, success, or pleasure.

(9) More specific matters relating to the aims and
means of education in connection with questions (2)
and (3) we must leave untouched, for example, ques-
tions about the curriculum, about the places of the arts,
humanities, and sciences, about teaching methods, or
about stages in the ordering of education. But we must
at least mention some issues relating to questions (4)
and (5). If we list the outstanding revolutions in educa-
tional theory of modern times, then, besides the move-
ment toward child-centeredness, the rise of secularism,
and the introduction of science and other modern
subjects into the curriculum, we must add the advent
of a belief in universal education as an answer to
question (4). For, until relatively recently, Occidental
education was always thought of as virtually a prerog-
ative of a larger or smaller male, white, elite class,
defined in one way or another. The adoption of a belief
in universal education, generally thought of as in large
part compulsory, free, and public, is one of the reasons
our educational theory is so much of a problem. In
a sense, all societies have always provided everyone—
women, slaves, peasants—with some kind of education.
They have all been taught to walk erect, to speak a
language, to obey instructions, to cook, to hunt, to
farm, to practice certain rites, and so on. Again, the
example of wolf children proves this. The issue is not
whether everyone is to be educated, but what educa-
tion each is to have, and how much choice he is to
have in the matter. What is special about the doctrine
of universal education is the belief that everyone is
to have or at least to be offered a formal education
of one or another of a few general types, at least up
to a certain age or stage, the main differences of opin-
ion being about the cost to him, the amount of com-
pulsion involved, just what kinds of education to pro-
vide, and where to set the point at which one is on
one's own.

As for question (5)—one aspect of it is whether
education or a certain kind or part of education should
be public or not, whether the state should be an edu-
cator in the sense of regulating and supporting some
or all of the educational enterprise within its bounds.
The Greeks tended to answer in the affirmative, the
Romans in the negative. The typical modern answer
is that at least a large part of education should be
public, making it a question whether this part of edu-
cation can be in any way religious, and whether private
systems of education should be left free in their choice
of dispositions to be fostered or of means to be used
in doing so.

Other problems relating to question (5) are those of
the amount and kind of training educators are to have,
how teachers are to be recruited, what salaries and
what status they are to receive. As has been indicated,
however, the most crucial problem here is the extent
to which each one of us, however young, is to be his
own educator—how far Bianca in The Taming of the
is right for all children when she says,


Why, gentlemen, you do me double wrong,
To strive for that which resteth in my choice.
I am no breeching scholar in the schools;
I'll not be tied to hours nor 'pointed times,
But learn my lessons as I please myself

(III, i, lines 16-20).