Philosophy of Education: Two Traditions
reviewed by Howard Woodhouse - 1994
The two traditions referred to in the title of this book are the analytic and the normative. Richard Pratte wants to use both philosophical traditions to articulate a view of education as enhancing "reasonableness" and moral awareness, since each can contribute to the individual's freedom to participate in American society (p. 301).
By reasonableness, Pratte means the ability to discern good from bad reasoning, make distinctions among different kinds of statements, and generally tidy up our thinking so that students can reason more clearly about moral matters. He analyzes these abilities in the first part of the book, claiming that they are a "bag of tricks" (p. xxiii) or a set of "reasoning techniques" (p. xix) to be taught to students so that they can move on to a consideration of "the bag of virtues" (p. xxiii) that comprise morality. This account of reasoning as a set of discrete skills that can be transferred from one context or discipline to another undermines Pratte's belief that the principles of morality are distinctive and "context bound" (p. xxiii).
Moreover, his claim that "many statements asserted in educational settings are metaphysical" (p. 55) and hence "cannot be logically disputed, but neither can they be logically defended" (p. 58) undermines his own view that paternalism toward students should be carefully examined (p. 275) and that there is "no moral basis for justifying paternalistic intervention by men in the lives of women" (p. 277). In both cases, Pratte's enlightened views rest on the belief that students and women are persons worthy of respect, a metaphysical claim that by his own criteria cannot be logically defended. This contradiction stems from his outmoded positivist conception of metaphysical statements as bereft of meaning (p. 56).
In the second part of the book, Pratte considers the "bag of virtues" that constitute the kind of morality that he wishes education to develop. His aim is to achieve a balance between the abstract principles of human dignity and respect for persons and the concrete virtues of caring, concern, and toleration so that students should learn the importance of both in making moral decisions. While plausible, Pratte's approach is fraught with problems. For example, he conceives of the "common conditions" necessary for "virtuous self-development" as community, identity, privacy, and autonomy, which he regards as universal. In his own words, they are "common to all human self- development, irrespective of the differences of culture or nation- states" (p. 129). Yet the last three have a distinctly Eurocentric flavor to them. Native Americans, for example, may well value community but they do so within a quite different framework from Pratte's, one that values relationship with others and harmony with nature as having greater worth than privacy, for example. Pratte's own reading of Alasdair MacIntyre's work should have alerted him to the fact that different moral traditions contain opposing, often contradictory, conceptions of the good.(n1) Furthermore, Pratte's belief that caring is an inappropriate virtue for dealing with alcoholics because "a caring response will always contribute to the addiction" (p. 139) shows a misunderstanding of the nature of the caring relationship as articulated in Nel Noddings's work.(n2)
The third part of the book comprises a consideration of the concepts of education, schooling' indoctrination, needs, interest, and discipline. Pratte's aim is to maintain a dual perspective by synthesizing appropriate methods of analysis with normative considerations (p. 161). There is not much new here about the first three concepts that was not discussed during the 1970s when philosophers were preoccupied with the issue of indoctrination. Pratte's discussion of the concept of interest omits John Dewey's distinction between the "direct" and "indirect" interests of the child.(n3) This is puzzling given his repeated references to Dewey (pp. 204-05, 213, 215). However, his discussion of the normative sense of "interest" explains this lacuna. It hinges on the claim that teachers should "convince students that they ought to act from a (best) interest," which he defines as "the interest of others" (p. 210). In other words, students should be persuaded to give up pursuing their own interests in favor of what is in the interest of others. The teacher's role in this exercise is to "find pleasant means, even manipulative ones, of inducing students to understanding tasks which, from the teacher's perspective, represent some desirable goal or practice" (p. 213).
Not only does Pratte's position smack of indoctrination (manipulation is a term that recurs throughout this and later sections of the book), but he concedes that it is paternalistic, involving "the substitution of our own judgements of another's best interest for the judgements of that person, without that person's consent" (p. 212). As I have pointed out, Pratte objects to just this kind of paternalism with regard to both students and women (pp. 275, 277). How he intends to resolve this tension is unclear.
In Part 4, Pratte turns to a consideration of the issues of authority, power, freedom, paternalism, privacy, and rights in education. His aim is to underline their importance to the practice of education, one that is too often overlooked (p. 231). The discussion here is largely abstract and one wonders why Pratte did not enliven it by means of more real-life examples or case studies. What he says about authority has already been said rather better by R. S. Peters.(n4) His definition of power as "the production of intended effects" (p. 245) is Bertrand Russell's, though he fails to acknowledge the source.(n5) Pratte then proceeds to ignore Russell's criticisms of the tendency toward increasing organization in the modern world by claiming that authority and power are "natural manifestations of relationships between individuals and groups" (p. 251) and that "restrictions . . . are an inevitable, constant part of the human situation" (p. 265). It is worth noting that these statements are, by Pratte's own criteria, metaphysical and hence unjustifiable (pp. 55-58). Moreover, they support the very paternalism to which he objected with regard to students and women.
In the final chapter of the book, Pratte advocates "a limited or restricted paternalistic treatment of children (as well as of adults)" (p. 278). The authority of teachers, grounded in the kind of knowledge that they possess, justifies an unequal relationship between them and their students. At the same time, a "moral priority of teachers" (p. 279) should be to raise questions about whether children are less rational than adults and whether paternalism is really justifiable. Within Pratte's own framework, these questions have little chance of finding nonpaternalistic answers. He has already told us that, given the present structures of power, teachers must pass judgment on students' social status and personal appearance (pp. 249-50). Since power and authority are "natural manifestations of relationships between individuals and groups," there is little or no opportunity for changing this status-ridden situation. Indeed, how could teachers and students find increased freedom to inquire cooperatively and critically within restrictions that are "inevitable" and "constant"? Pratte poses questions about the need to change the teacher/student relationship within a conceptual framework that precludes the possibility of such change.
(n1) Alisdaire MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).
(n2) Nel Noddings, A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
(n3) John Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1920).
(n4) R. S. Peters, Authority, Responsibility and Education (London: Allen and Unwin, 1973).
(n5) Bertrand Russell, Power: A New Social Analysis (London: Allen and Unwin, 1939).