The past several weeks we have studied the major philosophies relating to education: Idealism, Realism, Existentialism, and Pragmatism. The learning activities and forum discussions gave several opportunities to consider similarities and differences between these philosophies. I would like to further explore the historical context of these philosophies. When you think about education as a method for passing essential knowledge and skills on to the next generations of citizens, it is easier to understand how the educational philosophies would be justified at historic points in time.
Idealism is an ancient philosophy with its root firmly planted in the writings of Plato during the 5th Century in Athens. This period was known as the “Golden Age’ and Plato’s contemporaries (relatively speaking) included great minds such as Pericles, Socrates, Hippocrates, and coincided with the construction of the Parthenon. As remarkable philosophers, politicians, and writers sought to salvage Athens from widespread ignorance and poverty common of the day, Idealism called for the proliferation of like-minded elite intellectuals who were capable of realizing universal truths of the spiritual world through abstract thought. Idealism also purports that theology and scripture have a place in curriculum, as morality, discipline, and respect for authority are valued. Idealism was a way to drive society forward and beyond the physical parameters of this world to realize the truths of the nonphysical realm.
On the other hand, Realism is attributed to Aristotle (who was one of Plato’s students) and calls for the exploration of this physical world around us. Furthermore, realism rejected the idea that truth could be found through reasoning alone. Instead, one must include perception, observation, and experimentation in the search for truth and knowledge. While Aristotle studied alongside Plato, the student and teacher pair created two opposing fundamental philosophies. It should be noted that both Aristotle and Plato “believed thoughts were superior to the senses. However, whereas Plato believed the senses could fool a person, Aristotle stated that the senses were needed in order to properly determine reality.” (‘Aristotle vs. Plato’).
Existentialism is essentially a fatherless philosophy built in response to the bleak outlook following WWII and the growing societal obsession with objectivity, generalization, and regulation of values. Existentialism focuses on personalizing education to give individuals purpose, choice, and responsibility in character development and self-fulfillment. In a turn away from education for the greater good of society, Existentialism repurposed education to grant individualized and subjective knowledge to students. Existentialist students would use subject matter as a means of developing self-awareness and personal truths and values rather than allowing others to make those decisions for us.
Pragmatism developed in the later 19th century through the work of American philosophers such as Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. At the time, the United States was experiencing fierce industrialization and cities were wrought with problems including an influx immigrants and their respective cultures, urban gridlock, sanitation and health concerns, and integration of new technologies (e.g. first transcontinental railroad, the telephone). Pragmatism called for a redefinition of truth and knowledge as whatever is applicable in problem solving. Educational principles should be applicable in real-life situations and will therefore evolve and change due to variation in time and context. Learning should involve projects, experience, and activity.
During Module 2, I often found myself attempting to resolve the degree to which I agreed with each philosophy. I have come to the conclusion that perhaps it is irrelevant whether I agree or disagree with Idealism, Realism, Existentialism, or Pragmatism. All of these philosophies are valid in their own right, and the circumstances surrounding their development are reflected in their perspectives on metaphysics, epistemology, axiology, and logic. I think it is more beneficial to reflect on what aspects of each philosophy resonate most strongly over time. As a teacher, your career will have more momentum and your teaching more direction if you know what you philosophical perspectives you value and aim to cultivate in students, the beliefs held by your employer, and whether you can negotiate any differences or conflicts of interest.
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Hicks, Stephen. (2010). ‘Contrasting Realist to Idealist Philosophy, Clip 1-6.’ [Digital video]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8ED24C083DD5FCAA
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Hicks, Stephen. (2010, May 25). ‘Pragmatic Education.’ [Digital video] available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcC1XYJTe9E&list=TLbPVH9P5uvsM
Hicks, Stephen. (2010). ‘Realist Curriculum: 3R’s, Foundational Knowledge and Methods.’ [Digital video]. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgPlXXLZpQw&list=PL3ED4A5B0BF91CACD
Hicks, Stephen. (2010). ‘Realist Curriculum: Example 1-3.’ [Digital video]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYiAPEc9EoE&list=PL3ED4A5B0BF91CACD&index=14
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