A Dialogue On Education

This piece of reflection was inspired by a former professor of mine – Dr. Gerald Gutek, professor of education, Loyola University and author of many books on educational philosophy ( I highly recommend his A History of Western Educational Experience). But in particular, inspired by an imaginary conversation between Confucius and Dewey which Dr. Gutek turned me onto (can’t find any link to it on the web anymore).

To get started – let’s warm up with Philosopher’s Soccer by Monty Python!

A dialogue on education between Plato, Dewey and Marx.

Setting: The lost city of Atlantis, in a time neither now nor then or to be.

Plato, Dewey and Marx are sitting around the staffroom table.

Plato very stoic in appearance. Dewey with a sparkly  eyed look. Marx, rubbing his beard and scratching his head.


Dewey: So let’s get to work men! We have to decide on the curriculum and materials for this course!  If Atlantis doesn’t learn English, they will fall back under the sea and I’m not just speaking metaphorically. Progress never stops and if we hesitate, Atlantians will be forgotten by history.

Marx: I agree, let’s start liberating them! They have been victims of the inexorable march of history too long.  Long live the proletariat!

Plato: I can agree with that Mr. Marx. They are so blind and us teachers must lead them into the light! So what do you propose, if I may suggest so “cratically”?   (hahaha – he laughs to himself)

Dewey: Well I propose we ask the students and citizens of Atlantis what they want to learn and what they want their schools to be like. We have to respect the individual! Let’s continue their emancipation cooperatively.

Marx: Respect the individual?What do they know, they are ignorant and until they know how they are oppressed “materially” no real education can take place. We have to get them organized and educate them on economics.

Plato: Well said Karl, we can’t have the blind leading the blind.But I wouldn’t want economics in our schools! That is a pseudo science and just mumbo jumbo. We need classic oratory, presentation, rhetoric and logic, math and of course ethics.

Dewey: Aren’t we teaching them English? What are you guys talking about? I recommend we bring them up to speed and get all the best technology for the classrooms. I’m not too concerned about the content – it’s the “how” that is big and to compete these days, they need computer skills. They need to learn the kind of English that they will use in their daily lives – English for Special  Purposes. ESP

Plato: ESP? What quackery! What they need is good training in the basics. Let’s get them drill and repeat books. They must master their subject through the use of their mind. Only then by control and rationality will they attain the “Good”.

Marx: What’s this about God? Keep him out of it, he’s just more opiate for the masses.

Plato:  I said, “Good” not “God”.

Marx:  Same thing, just some stupid, non material idea to lead people astray.

False ideology! This school needs books, books not written by the established powers but by those who see how the workers are exploited and who see the bright future where there will be no division of labor. Paradise on earth, now that is GOOD!

Dewey: I also recommend that students talk a lot. Just talking and discussing will help them discover and test what experience teaches them.

Plato:  Only the teacher should be talking until they master the fundamentals at least.  And no materials except those from the great authors of the past!

Marx: What! That’s blasphemy!

Dewey: I thought you didn’t believe in “god”?

Marx: Well, you know what I mean. It’s outrageous, with all due respect Plato, to keep feeding the masses the same old content from the same tired “authorities” who keep enslaving the masses with false ideology and “carrots”. I agree the teacher should talk – forget books. But it should be about raising consciousness and not any blather about noble “fundamentals”.

Dewey: You guys are losing the point. We have to create good citizens and our curriculum should focus on the democratic ideal. We are free and we need a school where students can experience the world. In fact, why don’t we just have school outside, in the real world. Let’s learn English on the street  where people actual use it!

Plato:  Have you lost your mind?“Experience the world”???? There is no real except for the forms. Our students must study and control their desires and not run around the streets like “noble savages”. Good citizens yes but they should know their place.

Dewey: Again, man is free! Why do you see our students in such a poor light?

Marx:  I think John has a point, we should take students out of school but not into the streets but into the factories and offices. There, they can talk and learn English and truly learn how enslaved the capitalist class is!

Plato:  Nothing is learnt by losing one’s head. They need repetition, drill – that’s how they acquire a skill. Let’s get lots of audio stuff for them to listen to.

Dewey:  Let them listen to each other! And what of the scientific method – have you forgotten that or is it unimportant?Our students will learn by us letting  them experiment and “use” English. We need controlled conversation and things like language gaps and carefully scaffold lessons so to support  student language acquisition through the forming of hypothesis and testing.  Students need to become good citizens by learning how to learn.

Plato:  Why so?Language is not so complex and it is also a means not an end. The end should be the Republic and the creation ofmen capable of “thought of  the good”.Form is good but it shouldn’t be left to the individual.

Marx: Ah, here you go again with “the Good”.There is nothing “good” except the conscious awareness of our role in history and the nature of “class society”.  Our schoolshould be a place to emancipate the working class, English for  the purpose of class liberation — forget the individual!

Dewey:  But they are already free and I don’t think learning English will help learn about “class consciousness”. They need to know how to read a recipe book or a menu, things like that.

Plato: But if they want to learn English they will, this has already been decided. We just need to teach grammar, the basic rules. All should focus on that.

Marx: The deck is rigged! We can’t have that!If we have to teach anything, let’s teach them skills and trades – not the poppycock, abstract stuff!

Dewey: I agree and so too would Voltaire, “ecrasez l’infame!” “Fight the infamy”. We need to really get utilitarian and ask “what will the students need to use English for?” and proceed from there.

Marx: Now I can see your agenda John. You are a capitalist dupe. A “dogooder” keeping everyone enslaved anon……

Plato:  Marx, you would make a formidable opponent in debate!

Dewey: Yes, he would. But he’d still be wrong. There is nothing practical about his world view and he hasn’t given one good idea for student learning except economics and “conscious raising”. These are good but are they pragmatic?  Marx, let’s give the people what they want, that’s what is good for history.

Marx: The people don’t know, nor will our students.

Plato:  Here! Here! Now that is an ideal I support. Some students are just not cut out for higher learning or “the way of the good”.

Dewey:  Why can’t we just cooperate? We are all on the same ship.

Plato:  Apparently not and I don’t think it is in man’s nature to cooperate unless  truth and beauty are agreed upon.

Marx: I’ll cooperate if you do what I propose…….or you both go back to your “superstructural” ideological illusions.

Plato:  Marx, now you are talking like a poet. And they have no place in my Republic.

Dewey:  Well, I have to run. Another meeting. Lots to do…..

Plato:  Yes, I have a book to finish also and then some writing.

Marx:  Yeah, let’s meet again next week and in the meantime I’ll get some  pamphlets printed from my printing house and call a mass meeting where  the workers can have their say.

Dewey:  Okay, let’s disagree to disagree. Until then.


Part 2:  Postscript. A discussion on educational views and philosophies.

Critical thinking means that teachers are objective and unbiased, encouraging students to examine all sides of an issue.”

The above statement is certainly something that would sit well with a liberal. The liberal views as primary, the process whereby the student is empowered through their own “critical awareness”.Whether that be Dewey’s “Complete Act of Thought” or just students coming to terms with their own individuality and freedom.

Education to a liberal is about both the progress of the individual and society in concert. A liberal would have no problem with this “relativistic” approach and this is probably at heart, why so many conservatives detest liberalism so much – for their faith in students and student centered approaches.

Society changes constantly and liberals view “issue” oriented education as a must. Otherwise, mankind is not ready for the world as it is. Reality changes and demands vigilance and individual responsibility. Society and democracy also demand it. As John Stuart Mills suggests, people need to choose and participate in society — this is the goal of all teaching, the creation of a meritocracy of respectful citizens.A teacher must encourage that through objective examination of the “issues”.Let the students come to their own conclusions and become “choosers” and not those who amorphously follow public opinion or their teacher’s opinion. Student government and leadership are encouraged, tolerance is a rallying cry and so too is pluralism. We must respect even the dissenting view.

Critical theorists on the other hand would be wary of the above notion of “teacher objectivity”. A critical theorist is acutely aware of the power structures within schools, educational bureaucracies and society enlarge. They would point out that one can hardly expect a teacher to be “objective” however well intentioned he or she may be. While in favor of critical thinking, they would point out that educational institutions maintain and reproduce the dominant group however well intentioned the dialogue and discussion. They challenge who controls the curriculum and the very nature / place of where this discussion takes place. It is not only what is said that is important but the underlying conditions – a critical theorist would argue.

Critical theorists would also be wary of the notion that school consists just in “discussing” values. Praxis is vital to a critical theorist and they believe ardently in the notion that schools and students should be involved in actions to change the world for the better. Empowerment is not just “knowing” but also “doing” and they value a more experimental and radical approach to education than the liberal.

Liberals on the other hand are wary of the “revolutionary” agenda of critical theorists. Issues like Illych’s deschooling, the home schooling movement or many progressive ideas are too radical.They would say that there is too much “fire in their kitchen” and they shy away from the collectivist ideas and more strictly adhere to the spirit of the above quotation – that of respecting values and individuality. In a word, civilized discourse.

Henri Giroux outlines the translucent dividing line rather well. He speaks of his early years of education…..

Where I grew up learning was a collective activity. But when I got to school and tried to share learning with other students that was called cheating. The curriculum sent the clear message to me that learning was a highly individualistic, almost secretive, endeavor. My working-class experience didn’t count. Not only did it not count, it was disparaged” – from Border Crossings


Education, especially instruction in schools, should arise from the interests and needs of the students.”

This statement is at the core of the Progressive belief system. A full respect for the freedom and validity of the child. It is child centered and Progressives believe not just in the sanctity of the child but that education is for their benefit and thus should have their interests at heart.

Progressives firmly espouse the view that routine is a killer and that the teacher should try to arouse student interest and motivation through the use of student centered activities and interests in the classroom. The curriculum should in no way be prescribed and should come from the “interests and needs of the students”. It should in no way be “set down” upon students from above.

Nel Noddings, a major thinker in the Progressive camp outlines this succinctly when she writes, “There is more to life and learning than the academic proficiency demonstrated by test scores.”Progressives believe that standard curriculum leads students to hate learning and this in turn leads to many social ills in our society. A progressive believes there is something much greater than just “school” and thatschool should be less about “content” knowledge and more about what is and will be important for students in their lives ahead. The literally definition of “progress”.Noddings illustrates this point well with her quip that, “There are few things more central to our daily lives than money, family, and food. Yet our schools pretty much ignore all of them.”. Progressives focus as much on the emotional needs and creativity of students as the “knowledge” that is external to them.

The Progressive position is encapsulated by these wise words of Tsunesaburo Makiguchi,

“Teachers must not instruct students with the arrogant attitude of ‘Become like me!’ It is far more important for teachers to adopt the attitude, ‘Don’t satisfy yourself with trying to become like me. Make your model someone of higher caliber.’ True teachers (who are genuinely concerned for the development of each student), therefore, are those who have the humility to advance together with their students. Education must never be coercive. The heart of education lies in the process of teacher and pupil learning together, the teacher drawing forth the pupil’s potential and raising the pupil to surpass the teacher in ability.

Essentialists would argue that we have to give our students guidance and prepare them for the future with knowledge – facts/figures/focus.Students need to “know” before they can do and progressives are putting the cart before the horse. Essentialists are firm believers in tradition and the notion that a teacher imparts knowledge to which the students absorb. Thus, their belief as Bestor suggests in “fundamentals” which will provide the basis for success in life. Essentialist would never tolerate the notion that a student could decide what they wanted to learn.

Essentialists are conservative and believe in tradition and the proven time worn standards, like the 3 Rs. Accountability features high on their list and standards based approaches are their bulkhead. There is some “essential” knowledge that all humanity should know and it is for the teacher to instruct their students in these foundations and skills. A child needs routine andEssentialists through discipline, order and authority believe they can promote learning using the very condition ofteacher driven structure. The teacher sets the agenda, schedule, tone, mood and process. The teacher delivers time honored curriculum, the “canons” included – to which students should masters through memory and obedience.An Essentialist sees students reaching benchmarks and not wasting time on any student centered “fun” stuff..

These two educational philosophies (I’d rather say perspectives) are diametrically opposed. Very hard to reconcile the two and in one. Essentailists envision a school system where every student in a grade is learning the same thing at the same time. Learning is methodical and usually by the book. On the other hand, progressives would have children learning this or that dependent on the school or the local — the individual needs of those students.I would argue that there must be a middle ground. Life is not either/or, however much Kierkegaard proclaimed such….

Nationalism and in particular that peculiar breed of nationalism labeled, “ethnonationalism” are ideologies that I fundamentally believe are outdated yet continue to live on, in particular in our educational systems, simply because they can be used so easily to such horrible ends. Yet still, there are many, too many who believe that a nation state is the basis of all “being” and who suggest that education is a means of becoming not just a good citizen but a “zealous” and “proud” citizen.

Nationalists view the learning of other languages at a young age as detrimental to the proper development of a child. The mother tongue is paramount and almost godly. Nationalists suggest that he who controls language, controls the future. Children learning another language at an early age risk “corruption” and would weaken the nation state, a state formed through myth and collective narrative coated in language to become that “we-feeling”. In Korea, many suggest that learning English could destroy the moral fabric of youth and corrupt their “Koreaness”. Nationalists believe it wrong and are strongly against any foreign travel or “learning” at an early age. The nation is paramount and all resources of society should be used to “bond” the child to the nation state – their “mother”land.

Nationalists of today are not only those who in the past promoted raciallybased societies through the national agenda (racial purity – aryanism etc…). Presently, they might include many cultures in the “nation”– yet still schools should be about allegiance and patriotism and all the signs and symbols, paraphernalia and illusions of the “nation state”.

I believe the only proper response to a nationalist is to show them how outdated they are. As an English teacher, I would point to the innumerable studies that show that children who learn multiple languages at a young age suffer no ill effects. Rather, they excel far above other children in intelligence.The sanctity of the mother tongue at an early age is a myth. Identity is much more complicated..

I would also argue that given the world as it exists today and will exist, it is encumbent that we look more “internationally”. The children who succeed, and by succeed I mean that they leave a little more on this planet than they destroy, will be those who join in the global village and not those who seek to create a boogie man of it.Education is for the student’s own emancipation I believe and nationalism puts bars on each person’s windows. It is a prison and contains all the same violence and isolation despite the chants of togetherness from the cellblock.

As an educator, I feel sad seeing how societies, even the supposed “enlightened”like our own, hold up nationalism as a “beacon”.I believe it the role of all educators to bring the world together through encounters and knowledge of the “other”. Given the new technologies, this is becoming much more a part of education and I’m actively promoting this. Students will no longer have just the prism of their nation to view the world through – they will see as McLuhan suggested, “On spaceship earth, everyone is crew.”

As the world burns, still burns with the fanning effects of nationalism, I would argue to a nationalist that nothing but destruction has come of this creed and thus, it is not the “knowledge” or way of being that we should impart to children. The nationalist denies that the student needs to participate in and be a part of other cultures. I would suggest they must – that isolation as in the case of the U.S. and much of its passport less population only allows rabid violence through nationalism to ensue. Travel at a young age, encountering other cultures at a young age breed a “healthy” pride of country and temper nationalism. We have wisely secularized our schools but I now believe we should begin the process of “de-patriotizing” our public schools.This indeed was Dewey’s call so many years ago and I’ve returned to him again recently through this course(and I thank you, he is inexhaustible). I’ll end with his wonderful words:

We are now faced by the difficulty of developing the good aspect of nationalism without its evil side; of developing a nationalism which is the friend and not the foe of internationalism. Since this is a matter of ideas, of emotions, of intellectual and moral disposition and outlook, it depends for its accomplishment upon educational agencies, not upon outward machinery. Among these educational agencies, the public school takes first rank. When sometime in the remote future the tale is summed up and the public as distinct from the private and merely personal achievement of the common school is recorded, the question which will have to be answered is, What has the American public school done toward subordinating a local, provincial, sectarian and partisan spirit of mind to aims and interests which are common to all the men and women of the country – to what extent has it taught men to think and feel in ideas broad enough to be inclusive of the purposes and happiness of all sections and classes? For unless the agencies which form the mind and morals of the community can prevent the operation of those forces which are always making for a division of interests, class and sectional ideas and feelings will become dominant, and our democracy will fall to pieces.

— John Dewey, Nationalizing Education

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