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Philosophy of Education: Introductory Readings

reviewed by Jeffrey R. Di Leo - November 03, 2014

coverTitle: Philosophy of Education: Introductory Readings
Author(s): John P. Portelli & William Hare (Eds)
Publisher: Brush Education, Edmonton
ISBN: 1550594451, Pages: 472, Year: 2013
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Progressive education is under assault. The future of education in the age of neoliberalism and terrorism is indeed a grim one. The more that can be done to help students, teachers, and administrators to understand what is at stake, the better prepared they will be to cope with the grim realities—and overcome them. Consequently, books such as William Hare and John P. Portelli’s Philosophy of Education are faced with the daunting challenge of both introducing the ideas and trends shaping education today, as well as offering resistance to them as appropriate. This is easier said though than done, especially when one has fewer than five hundred pages to introduce an area of philosophy that traces back to Greek antiquity and is complicated by contradictory contemporary visions.

Broadly speaking, the philosophy of education deals with the conditions of possibility of education: politics and social aims; epistemology and ethics; and logic—and illogic. These topics are often more theoretical than practical. They involve conversations about education that are often meta-educational and founded upon abstraction and principle, rather than applications and specific examples. As such, for many students of education, courses in the philosophy of education are very difficult. What makes them even more difficult is that the vast subject matter is often reduced to a one-semester course. This puts a heavy burden on those who strive to produce textbooks in this area. And because of the shifting social and political ground of education in the United States, it also means that they need to be frequently updated to remain in touch with the social and political landscape of education.

Philosophy of Education: Introductory Readings (Fourth Edition) rises to the challenges described above. First published twenty-five years ago, soon widely adopted and admired, the collection has evolved with the continuously shifting ground of contemporary education. In fact, only one reading from the 28 included in this edition has appeared in all four (Harold Entwistle’s “The Relationship between Educational Theory and Practice: A New Look”) and only four articles pre-date the new millennium. One-third were first composed in the past five years, and two-thirds in the past ten years—and many of the older pieces appear to have been updated since their first publication. This makes the selection in this book very much attuned with current scholarship and issues in the philosophy of education.

The contributors are fairly equally divided between Canadians and Americans. There may be some grumbling from U.S. teachers about the (slight) majority of the contributors based in the Canadian educational system—though the high quality and accessibility of the contributions in general should assuage this concern. Additionally, the examples from Canadian educational practice and policy are particularly exciting for American audiences to put into relief against U.S. policy and practice.

The book itself is divided into six sections with four to five readings each. Each of the sections includes a brief introduction to the questions that motivate the readings in the section, and a short summary of each of the articles in the section. The selections themselves are without headnotes or other pedagogical apparatus (e.g., discussion questions, suggestions for further reading). While some prefer this format, my own preference is toward healthy headnotes that contextualize the particular reading within the body of work of the contributor (or field) in addition to a summation of the reading. Suggestions for further reading also help provide context and genealogy for the selections in the chapter, and would have not increased the size of the book by much—a page or two per section would have been sufficient. The book also would have benefited from an index, to help with cross-referencing of key terms and issues, as well as brief glossary of key terms and concepts that might be difficult or confusing for students new to the intersection of philosophy and education.

Quibble if you will about textual apparatus, textbooks are first and foremost to be judged by their organization and the quality of their contributions. By this standard, Hare and Portelli have done a fine job in selecting and organizing recent work that concisely engages many of the central social, political, and pedagogical issues facing education today.

The first section takes up the dialectics among theory and practice in a way that raises key issues without over-complicating them for the introductory student. The second section takes up the general issue of classroom discussions and how to deal with controversial issues and student relativism. The material in both of these sections is fairly non-controversial, but also far from the most exciting material in the book. Its inclusion seems to be motivated more by practical concerns than progressive ones.

The collection becomes more exciting and current, however, in the third section’s readings on social justice and democratic education. It is in this section that the book begins to help its audience to understand the role of neoliberalism in education, as well as the social and democratic aims of education. However, though the selections here are generally fine, given the importance of work in this area today, doubling the coverage would have been most welcome.

The fourth section deals with standards, efficiency, and measurement—the modus operandi of neoliberal education—and the fifth with rights, freedoms, and conflicts in education. The final section presents some general conceptions of teaching and education. It is somewhat odd that this section appears at the end of the book; in many ways it is the first thing many philosophy of education courses would cover, namely, topics such as “What is teaching?” and “What is education?”

Overall, Hare and Portelli’s text is a safe and thoughtful introduction to some of the key philosophical issues facing higher education. While a few of its contributors, such as Paulo Freire and Nel Noddings, will be known to students of educational philosophy, most will not. Nor are they educational theorists that students should know as well-read students, teachers, and administrators—even if the topics they take up are important ones. You will not find selections from classic thinkers like Aristotle, Rousseau, Mill, Dewey, and Arendt in this book. Nor will you find readings from influential contemporary figures such as Amartya Sen, Amy Gutman, Lawrence Blum, and Martha Nussbaum. Nor even will you see selections from progressive and radical figures such as bell hooks, Angela Davis, Pierre Bourdieu, Stanley Aronowitz, Noam Chomsky, Michael Apple, and—most significantly—the most important living Canadian philosopher of education, Henry Giroux.

While my own preference is to introduce topics using as many of the key voices in the philosophy of education as possible, there are many that would rather use secondary sources—like most of the articles in this book—to introduce these topics. If the latter is your preference, then this book is a fine introduction to contemporary issues in the philosophy of education.

But awareness of the dark conditions facing education today is not the same as alleviation of these conditions. The neoliberal education policies that dominate the contemporary educational landscape aim not to improve education, but rather to increase the profits of private corporations. Helping students, teachers, and administrators to understand this is noble. However, showing them pathways to overcome them is even better.

While Hare and Portelli’s Philosophy of Education shows us the door to progressive change in education, it does not exactly open it. The absence of the work of education writers like Chomsky and Giroux assures this collection a less controversial place on the education bookshelf. And as the publisher of the book is Brush Education, Inc.—a program supported by the Government of Alberta through the Alberta Multimedia Development Fund, and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund—one would not be surprised to learn that the editors aimed to be more conservative rather than less in their selection of contributors, given the state and governmental underwriting of their publisher.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 03, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17739, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 11:31:40 PM

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About the Author
  • Jeffrey Di Leo
    University of Houston-Victoria
    E-mail Author
    JEFFREY R. DI LEO is Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Professor of English and Philosophy at the University of Houston-Victoria. He is editor and founder of the critical theory journal symplokē, editor and publisher of the American Book Review, and Executive Director of the Society for Critical Exchange. His books include Morality Matters: Race, Class and Gender in Applied Ethics (2002), Affiliations: Identity in Academic Culture (2003), On Anthologies: Politics and Pedagogy (2004), If Classrooms Matter: Progressive Visions of Educational Environments (2004, with W. Jacobs), From Socrates to Cinema: An Introduction to Philosophy (2007), Fiction’s Present: Situating Contemporary Narrative Innovation (2008, with R. M. Berry), Federman’s Fictions: Innovation, Theory, and the Holocaust (2010), Terror, Theory, and the Humanities (2012, with U. Mehan), Academe Degree Zero: Reconsidering the Politics of Higher Education (2012), Neoliberalism, Terrorism, Education: Contemporary Dialogues (2013, with H. Giroux, K. Saltman, and S. McClennen), Corporate Humanities in Higher Education: Moving Beyond the Neoliberal Academy (2013), Turning the Page: Book Culture in the Digital Age (2014), and Criticism after Critique: Aesthetics, Literature, and the Political (2014).
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