Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: education

The Paideia Proposal

The Paideia Proposal was an educational reform plan proposed by Mortimer Adler in the USA. The description of the plan below is drawn from the article Reconstituting the Schools, included in the 1988 edition of his book Reforming Education, The Opening of the American Mind.

The Paideia Proposal is a system of liberal education intended for all children, including those who will never attend a university. It was a response to what Adler characterized as our antidemocratic or undemocratic educational system, a holdover from the 19th century, when the understanding of universal suffrage and basic human rights fell short of 20th century expectations. Adler further believed that a system oriented primarily for vocational training has as its objective the training of slaves, not free men, and that the only preparation necessary for vocational work is to learn how to learn, since many skilled jobs would be disappearing.

The Paidea Proposal was based upon the following assumptions, which contradict beliefs widely held by educators:

  1. All children are educable
  2. Education is never completed in school or higher institutions of learning, but is a life long process of maturity for all citizens
  3. The primary cause of learning is the activity of the child’s mind, which is not created by, but only assisted by the teacher
  4. Multiple types of learning and teaching must be utilized in education, not just teacher lecturing, or telling
  5. A student’s preparation for earning a living is not the primary objective of schooling

The relevance of the Paidea Proposal to our present difficulties is obvious. Clearly the damaging assumptions that Adler challenges are still around today and they still damage the spirit and capacities of today’s children and adults.

However, and at the same time, it could be said that many of the failed reforms of past decades have also drawn on some of Adler’s counter-cultural assumptions. His optimism about the capacity of educators to include more and more children within their academic disciplines also seems to have fed a decline in academic standards and discipline as educators are told to be more inclusive and more flexible.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we continue to see education as merely a professional process that is done to our children – to prepare them for labour markets. If we were to truly follow through on Adler’s assumptions would we not want to consider a more radical approach to education? The springboard for a child’s education is the love of the family, not the love of educators. We want our teachers to love and honour their subjects and find effective methods for communicating those subjects to our children. But we erode the family’s authority and responsibility by taking away form them the ability to shape their child’s education.

Strangers are much less likely to see potential within a child than loving parents.

The community does have a wider role here, both to support and discipline the family in the fulfilling of their responsibility. But no school-only approach is really going to work for most children. We need to begin developing family-based approaches to education.

Furthermore we need to challenge the notion that the state is competent to set a curriculum based on its flawed guesstimates of what the labour market will demand at some point in the future (all the more flawed because markets don’t ‘demand’ anything). Again we may still want to think about explicit accounts of the basic skills that are critical to our citizenship – but we should much more realistic about our capacity to foresee the market-value of skills we try and impose on our children today. Listening to the child’s capacities is more likely to be a reliable foundation for meaningful success that any sketch of our future economy.

It does not help those who are educationally disenfranchised to include them in a system that is flawed and failing. Instead we must attend to the conditions that really support motivated learning, personal development and real excellence in multiple fields: academic and non-academic.


Make Learning Fun for All

The following lessons are shared by experts in inclusive education – committed to ensuring that disabled children play a full part in classrooms, schools and the whole educational experience.

  1. Teach people to get enjoyment from all their senses! – We have many senses and many ways of learning
  2. Feed the need! – If we really feel a need to learn, explore and experiment then that’s where attention should go
  3. Let one system or domain support another! – We are not all good at everything, so let strengths in one area support the developments in others
  4. Don’t hurt, it must be fun! – We don’t learn when we’re in pain – physical or mental
  5. Compensate and let development come where it may! – We don’t all grow and develop at the same pace nor in the same areas
  6. Keep it cheap, fresh and novel! – Education should be fun for everyone – especially teachers (after all – its their job)

Food for thought for all of us at every stage of life.

Irony of Education

The irony of education is that while as a process it demands all the plurality and innovation required in any attempt to reach the most exalted outcome, there is no way that outcome can be defined accept by reference to the process of learning itself. And so it is always in danger of slipping into something beneath education.

First we may slip into assuming that we are aiming at some specific (if unstated) goal, like ‘suitable for employment by the modern state’. Second we may slip into taking the process of education, or one of its tokens, as the goal ‘a good degree’. These mistakes are both corruptions of education – turning it into the tool of an elite or into empty gestures.

But this is not education.

It may be training – and training can be very useful if you know what you ought to be doing – but it is not education.

Education is a ‘leading out’ – even if the ‘where we are going’ is not crystal clear. Hence we must see education as the development of what is already innate. Education presumes the value of learner, their passions and interest, and is informed by a strong sense of moral value.

Such a process must combine love for the learner – a love which may require discipline – along with the exercise of authority by the educator. The character of the relationship is possibly a better guide to the reality of education than anything else.

Educational Totalitarianism

Article 26 of the Declaration of Human Rights

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. 

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. 

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

This all makes good sense to me – but it is not how our actual education system works.

Each time that someone tries to fix the final purpose of education then they are engaged in a kind of totalitarian determination to fix the purpose of human life. They are wilfully trying to limit the ends of others by their own definition of what it is that human beings should learn, think and do. 

Good education implies freedom – faith in the unfolding of human potential. It does not require politicians to tell us what we should learn, how we should learn nor the purpose of our learning.

When the latest edict from the Department of Education tells us what the state intends to teach our children this week we should laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Education, Democracy and America

In America, on the contrary, it may be said that the township was organised before the county, the county before the state, the state before the union… …The law enters into a thousand social wants that even now very inadequately felt in France.

 But it is the mandates relating to public education that the original character of American civilisation is at once placed in the clearest light. “Whereas,” says the law, “Satan, the enemy of mankind, finds his strongest weapons in the ignorance of men, and whereas it is important that the wisdom of our fathers shall not remain buried in their tombs, and whereas the education of children is one of the prime concerns of the state, with the aid of the lord…” Here follows clauses establishing schools in every township and obliging the inhabitants, under pain of heavy fines, to support them. Schools of a superior kind were founded in the same manner in the more populous districts. The municipal authorities were bound to enforce the sending of children to school by their parents; they were empowered to inflict fines upon all who refused compliance; and in the cases of continued resistance, society assumed the place of the parent, took possession of the child, and deprived the father of those natural rights which he used to so bad a purpose. The reader will undoubtedly have remarked the preamble these enactments: in America religion is the road to knowledge, and the observance of divine laws leads man to civil freedom. 

Alexis de Tocqueville from Democracy in America (1835)

de Tocqueville notices some very interesting features of the early American social and political system.

There is first the genuinely ‘federal’ character of early American political organisation. Authority is seen to lie in citizens, then towns, counties and then it moves upwards to the state and the union.

Yet he also observes that, at that time, American society was not individualistic nor anti-social. To de Tocqueville it was extraordinarily social:  the desire to do good and to attend to “social wants” is everywhere.

The paradox is that ambitious social concern combined with a federal and legalistic society lends itself quite naturally to demanding a state that can increasingly interfere with individual liberty. By the standards of the time, America was certainly a nanny socialist state. Perhaps its current liberalism is a reaction against this early enthusiasm.

However, some resolution to this paradox is found in the role played by religion in early American life. While tolerating diversity of religious practice, American society seems bound together in a shared moral concern for each other that is religious rather than liberal. However this is counter-balanced by a distinctively protestant concern for the liberty of the individual soul. The notion that any citizen can be sacrificed for the sake of the collective would be profoundly problematic for such a protestant country.

Today we are more sanguine about sacrificing the individual for the collective. Mechanisation, atomisation and the erosion of moral and religious feeling all encourages a sense that we are just all part of some vast machinery of need and production and that our role is simply to play our part and to try and squeeze out for ourselves whatever share of the social product we can manage.

If we are not careful citizenship stops being the foundation stone for a just society – instead it simply becomes a way of flattering us into accepting our role as mere subjects of the state.

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