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Philosophy and Education
Rhonda Freeman


Philosophy Comparison Essay

Philosophy of Education FB 214

Instructor:  Ken Penner

November 20, 2002



            Education as a whole is meant to answer the integral questions of the meaning of the universe, including what is real, what is good, what is man, and what is true.  Five important philosophical theories: pragmatism, progressivism, essentialism, perennialism, and existentialism are all concerned with specific goals in education.  While they are similar in this aspect, their theories about the ideal are often a world apart.  In order to teach with Godly wisdom, it is important to study the various takes on what goals should propel education, and chose carefully when putting them into practice. 

            Pragmatism as a theory has influenced educational thought through reconstructionism, futurism, critical pedagogy, and educational humanism, and especially progressivism, which will be discussed in detail next.  Two integral answers to the meaning of reality and truth define how pragmatists see education and its goals.  In the metaphysical realm, pragmatists deny the existence of ultimate reality all together.  Rather, it is completely dependent on the learner as they experience it and reflect on that experience.  Because experience is subject to change, so does the concept of reality to the pragmatist.  Therefore, the goal in education is to give the students experiences in order for them to reflect on that experience and thereby solve problems.  They are to learn as they “act on their environment and are, in turn, acted upon by that environment as they undergo the consequences of their actions”[i]  The school experience is thereby a way of life as they adapt to the changing world around them. 

The realm of epistemology, to the pragmatist, is also volatile and changing.  Knowledge is based on experience, and the seeking of knowledge an operation of both receiving and interacting with the environment.  In relation to the goal of education, the student should be in process of reflective thinking whenever they encounter a problem.  This involves intellectualizing, inventory of possible solutions, exercising reason and finally testing the hypothesis.  Truth is what works according to the pragmatist.  So the hypothesis does not work, it proves false.[ii]  The student should have freedom in putting ideas to the test as in a laboratory, and make the experience the most meaningful as possible.[iii]    

Progressivism, a theory that popularized in the 20th century, put into practice pragmatic thought.  They stress the student above the curriculum, and truth as “what works”.  First of all, education is to focus on the student rather than the curriculum.  The curriculum should center on the student’s current experience and interests, because, to the progressive, education is not simply a preparation for life.  It is life. 

The second purpose is to teach the student to adapt to the inevitable change occurring around her, as pragmatism suggests.  In the journey to find out what works, education should be focused on the process of how to learn rather than rote learning.[iv]  Passive learning is looked down on, for according to Dewey,

“The child is already intensely active, and the question of education is the taking hold of his activities, of giving them direction”[v] 

Students are not meant to be stuffed full of rote knowledge, rather they naturally want to learn and will do so by their own initiative.  

The final goal of progressive education that should be noted is their belief that education and schooling are an integral part of the world around the student, so it should be reflected in the process of education.  Cooperative learning is promoted along with a free discussion of ideas, in an attempt to prepare the student for the democratic society in which they are increasingly becoming a part of.[vi]

            Essentialism, a theory that rose up in rejection of progressivism, outlines some very different goals of education than their counterpart.  The primary goal is to teach the basics rather than cater to the whims of the student.  This includes reading, writing, and arithmetic in elementary school with the addition of science, history, and foreign languages in secondary school.  If students master these skills, they will be able to function well in society when they are older.[vii]  So, rather than treat schooling as “life itself”, education should be a preparation for integration into society with the study of the basics. 

A second essentialist goal in education is the implementing of discipline in the classroom.  Learning is supposed to be challenging, and the child will learn much better when they are challenged rather than taught simply what interests them at the time.  Future goals hold high importance, and pure effort in the foundations is where the success of these goals will happen.  As students put out effort, interest will gather.  It is possible to fine tune traits like discipline in this way.[viii]

            Perennialism as a philosophy was build upon early Greek tradition, a form of education for the mind that believed rational thought is what makes humans truly human.  Founded on neo-scholastic principles, who saw man as a “rational animal”, its main goal of education is to build upon the mental powers of the student, as they considered the intellect to be the central human characteristic.  The mind is to be disciplined to handle real life situations.[ix]  Furthermore, because the intellectual side of humanity has been consistently shared over the centuries of human history, the aim of education to develop the mind of man should be consistent as well.[x]

            A second goal of perennial education deals with epistemology.  Because knowledge is seen as consistent over the years, knowledge should be what is taught, rather than opinion.  Knowledge leads to absolute truths and permanent things in the world, while opinion leads nowhere.  Education should be consistent because truth is consistent.  Students should be taught eternal truths to create a shared knowledge base that will build a successful and understanding society.[xi]  In this point, perennialist thought falls much closer to that of the essentialists rather than progressives, who value opinion in a constantly changing world.  As Knight says,

“Education, claim the perennialists in opposition to the progressives, should not adjust individuals to the world, but rather should adjust them to the truth.”[xii]

            Finally, perennialists see the focal point of education to be the subject matter rather than the student.  Again, this focus aligns more with essentialism than progressivism.  Disciplines of the mind, such as logic, math, rote memory and grammar are very important, not only as subjects, but also for the practice of will power to do difficult tasks.  Even though the tasks may seem daunting and lacking in pleasure, enforced discipline in these areas will help the student learn to become responsible in doing them anyway.  This internal will power will be very helpful in the future when there is no enforcer at hand. 

            Existentialism is one of the newest philosophies, and takes a different road than the earlier philosophies as it deals with the individual’s emotion rather than the intellect.  All reality is relative to the individual, where nothing else holds meaning in itself.  A person is responsible to find their own existence out of a world that holds little essence.  So when it comes to education, they are disappointed with a system that seemingly makes the student a cog in the machinery of society without bringing out their individualism.[xiii]  To counter this, their goal in education is to enable students to explore possible answers as they construct relevant and personal views.  The curriculum should be flexible in the changing world, and the student should have a say in subject matter.  The fundamentals have their place, but they should focus on giving individual meaning rather than pass on information.  Options abound not only in the realm of school subjects but also in the world at large.  All of these things should center around the purpose of helping the student “find herself”.[xiv] 

            The philosophies discussed and their educational goals are intricately woven into the fiber of their basic philosophical assumptions.  Some are quite similar in assumption, such as pragmatism and progressivism in their agreement of the relativity of truth.  Others are similar in practice, such as the perennialist and essentialist focus on the basics of education.  Yet each carries a strong desire to improve the individual student and their function in society through specific educational goals.  Because each philosophical position holds some validity, it is our duty to glean what is good and honourable while discarding what is not.  As we mature, we should seek to create a seamless Christian philosophy that is not reliant on the secular, but in harmony with God’s word.   


[i] George R. Knight, “Philosophy of Education”, Michigan, 1998, p.67

[ii] ibid, 64-65

[iii] ibid, 68


[v] ibid,101

[vi] ibid,100-103

[vii] ibid,116

[viii] ibid, 117

[ix] Michael Peterson, “With all your Mind:  A Christian philosophy of Education” Indiana, 2001,45

[x] Knight,110

[xi] ibid,111

[xii] ibid,111

[xiii] ibid,76

[xiv] ibid,78