In order to discuss a philosophy of education one must first define what an education is. What is the purpose of an education? What is the aim? The purpose of an education is to help bring into being the individual human being and citizen whose potential exists in every man and woman born on this Earth.
The proper aim of education is not to impart any specific content or knowledge. For a proper education will have armed the student with the skill sets and tools necessary to discover any specific knowledge desired. The amount of information available today is difficult to fathom and impossible to digest. It is no longer possible for a human to read every book that has been written in a single subject, let alone an entire library. What is often more important than how much one knows is how well one can find the information one needs. Encyclopedic memorization is not the aim of education. “In the learner-centered school ‘the having of wonderful ideas’ (Duckworth, 1987) is important, while in traditional schools the acquisition of information and skills is valued” (Schiro, 2008 p. 93).
In order for a student to know how to find information that is desired and to be valued requires the ability to judge good information from bad. [Simply trusting the first links one sees on a Google search for a term (as a very simply example) could lead to very false understandings of a concept depending on the sources]. A discerning and critical eye is wanted from the student, not merely a robotic ability to look up a subject or word. This of course requires wisdom and sound judgment, which are amongst the aims of education. "All educators promote one political agenda or another. If educators' instructional efforts are not directed toward social reconstruction then they are directed towards social maintenance." (Schiro, 2008 p. 153) Knowledge is not to be regarded as neutral, nor is the knowledge that a teacher chooses to include or omit in a curriculum. Either we educate for change or we educate for maintenance. And yet, how does one instill this ability to judge a situation and decide on what is right or wrong, just or unjust? In order to answer this question we must ponder another; how do students learn? To be sure, students can learn from didactic lecturing, absorbing information and content as often encouraged in the scholar academic ideology. But I do not believe this is the most valuable method for learning. If the aim of education is merely to impart as much knowledge as possible, or to attain maximum technological sophistication, then many genocidal regimes would qualify as having achieved a well educated society. In Nazi Germany, to cite a relatively recent historical example, the first two unions to join Hitler’s party were those of the lawyers and doctors, certainly educated groups. How did educated, technologically advanced and ‘culturally sophisticated’ groups help commit genocide? Can the educational system that gives birth to genocide be deemed successful? One hopes we could all agree that it is not. Knowledge without wisdom is worse than meaningless, it is dangerous. In Freire’s scheme where there are oppressed and oppressors, the oppressors are not ignorant or foolish, they simply are able to make use of their knowledge (that is power) in manners that are wrong and unjust.
This brings us to another set of questions which will answer for us the second way in which students learn. How do we define wisdom? Who decides on what is just and unjust? And how does a teacher impart wisdom? A Jewish collection of ethical proverbs called Ethics of the Fathers asks “who is wise?” and answers “he who learns from everyman”. In a similar vein, I would argue that wisdom is knowledge gained through experience. It is the experience of something new that challenges our previously held conceptions that leads to growth. For such experiences promote crisis which in turn force us to incorporate the ideas “of everyman”. “The ideal school is a school full of activity, a school where experience is the medium through which individuals grow and learn, a school where, indeed, ‘experience is the keynote of education!’” (Schiro, 2008 p. 94) How a teacher can impart wisdom should now be clearer. It is the responsibility of the teacher to create the atmosphere and choices of experiences that will promote the crises that can lead to the development of the individual. This learner centered framework where experiential learning is valued also makes use of the most critical resource in education, the learner themselves, and humans native curiosity. People are by nature curious and by creating situations in which this curiosity can grow and explore the world, wisdom will follow. As regards who decides on what is just or unjust, this is the most difficult aspect of this entire curricular framework. There is a general comfort in relying “on everyman” - on the common wisdom that has existed across millennia and civilizations, such as the moral wrongs that exist in murder or theft. Endless philosophers have grappled with these questions, and few likely find comfort in Kant’s grounding of such morality in ‘philosophic truth’. Ultimately I believe, the judgment of right and wrong must also be regarded as a process over an end, it is via the critical and rigorous thinking born of our experiences that we judge a situation right or wrong, and hopefully do so in a manner that is beneficial to us as an individual human being and to our neighbors as fellow citizens. I would value the student who chooses ‘wrongly’ in my eyes but does so with a conscious deliberation and process that they felt led to a sound judgment than to agree with my judgment by mere behavioral training. If we truly believe in the ability of every human to be learned, to be wise, than we must also trust their power and right to determine how they see fit to judge a situation. It is this “social relativity” that the social reconstructionists refer to (Schiro, 2008 p. 146).
It should be clear that in order to really appreciate the complexity of the world and to think critically one requires a myriad of tools and skills. Content is important and can not be ignored, if we are illiterate then literature becomes dumb and civilizations silent. However, when we locate the ultimate aim of education it must be a goal higher than mere knowledge, then this skill or that skill. It must be the education of a human being.
But the human being as the individual self is not the only realm that we occupy; we are also all citizens in a society. "There is no good individual apart from some conception of the nature of the good society. Man without human society and human culture is not man" (Counts, 1932a p.28 as quoted in Schiro). To educate the just individual requires considering a just society and culture, which in turn requires considering the deficiencies or even cruelties in societies present form. Such an education must be interdisciplinary. The school, by imparting wisdom, readies the individual human being to partake in society—the school is in fact a microcosm of society. It is for this reason that it is important that our classrooms model the type of creative involvement in decision making that democracies require. How can adult citizens actively engage in democracy when their entire educational experience has been an autocratic framework? It is an irrational approach. “To as large a degree as possible the governance of the classroom” should be based on the empowerment of the students (Schiro, 2008 p. 93). The empathy that comes from an experience (that a teacher can help create) whereby one sees part of oneself in others who are suffering can not help but create a caring thoughtful individual who will have a host of possible ways to engage society and thus fulfill her obligations as a citizen. One proponent of the learner centered ideology cited "freedom as a goal of education; and his belief that a social function of education that 'stands higher than subjects of learning' is to erase prejudice and 'make the public schools a tremendous force for the up building of democracy" (Parker 1894, p.420 as quoted by Schiro). There are many manners in which the learner-centered ideology provides the experiential framework and interdisciplinary approach that provides a meaningful pedagogical delivery complements the human and meaningful content of the social reconstructionist approach. They require one another.
This is clearly not what the NYS curriculum and standards guide has in mind. It emphasizes a scholar/academic ideology with a focus on “content and skills” (NYS Standards – The Living Environment page 3) that can be measured. While there is an emphasis in the standards for higher level understanding as opposed to rote memorization, the curriculum lacks an interdisciplinary approach by design and only focuses on experiential learning as the framework in as much as laboratories lend themselves to this learning model. Even in this case (of laboratory learning) the curriculum views laboratory experiments merely as another tool in aiding of “develop[ment] of their skills of analysis, inquiry, and design” (Ibid), so even in the case of experimentation, it is not the process of learning via experimentation or scientific method that is valued, but what is learned that is valued. This is an important gap between the philosophy I have outlined and the expectations of the NYS curriculum and standards.
An ideal science teacher would be one who engages the students in the material through exploration and discovery while simultaneously teaching them lessons in humanity. There is ample room for doing this within the criteria for biological sciences set by NY Standards and Curriculum (even though it is not the aim of the standards) thanks to the deliberate “lack of detail in the document” (NYS Standards – The Living Environment page 3). While the NYS curriculum and standards focus on the scholar academic approach, with the idea that the teacher is to impart specific wisdom in the form of specific information, that is to say, the NYS curriculum and standards focuses on measurable ends, it has very little to say about the process to use to achieve these ends. The versatile instructor can with relative ease put in place the philosophy of education outlined above as the process by which students will still acquire the ‘measurable ends’ that the curriculum and standards wish students to attain.
One example could be having the students run gels when learning about DNA such that the similarity of the DNA of the students in the class becomes clear. If there are students from a small genetic community they will see nearly no differences and even amongst the most distant ethnic lines in a class we could easily recognize the familial relationship that exists amongst all humans. In learning about evolution or zoology we could study and discover the culture of other primates. Seeing such human behavior in another animal is often a shock to humans forcing them to confront their conception of uniqueness. Seeing something so ‘human’ in an ape will forcefully confront our own bigotries amongst ourselves. One could go on and on. Content, rigorous content, need never be compromised in the learning process outlined in this paper.
The obstacles faced in such an exercise are in ensuring that the students really do experience that which is set up for them to discover. If students are not engaged, if they are emotionally shut down, if their guard is up, if there is an unsafe atmosphere, then they will not really experience any of these discoveries, there will be no crisis, and there will be no resolution of the crisis through a more complicated, beautiful, and wise understanding of the world and humanity.
Biology is the study of life. It should be the goal of any high school biology teacher to impart a love for all life to her students. It is by encountering the complexity of the world and the diversity of humanity that one gains wisdom. For in encountering the complexity of the world one is forced to think in a myriad of colors. Biologically, the complexity of the world speaks to the beauty of a 4.5 billion year heritage of evolution and the accompanying responsibility and accountability we have for ensuring the survival of our ecosystem. In the words of Carl Sagan, “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.” His conclusion, “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.” Carl Sagan makes it incredibly clear that bigotry reaches the level of the absurd when we consider our place in the universe. Racism reaches the level of idiocy when we consider humanities evolutionary history. To strive for the ideal society, just like education itself in this philosophy, is a process not an end, "it is not a finished vision that portrays in precise details a utopia...but rather a vision of direction that points to the way society must move" (Counts, 1932b, p37 as quoted in Schiro, 2008). It is in process that skills and thinking itself are valued over what is being remembered, that having a goal in mind, even if it is one that may never be attained is valued, over achieving some specific goal that results in the ‘educated human’. Being an ‘educated human being and citizen’ is a never ending process of growth, no one should get to a point where they feel they have become educated and are no longer in need of new experiences or ideas.
Perhaps however, Carl Sagan’s sentiments and the abstract idea of 4.5 billion years of evolutionary heritage do not resonate. What we have witnessed to resonate loudly throughout human history is the appeal of bigotry and the myth making of our own superiority; A mythology that continues to fuel the disparities in human societies today and has resulted in the ‘oppressed’ and the ‘oppressors’. How might we conquer this nature and thus gain more wisdom? It is only through the encounter of the self with an ‘other’ that we can learn to overcome our prejudices. For when our demonizations of another group are put to the test of having become friends with a member of that group we are faced with an inevitable crisis. And so we are then faced with the decision to maintain our bigotry and label them an ‘other’ who is somehow tricking us and is the demon we have been told she is, or to abandon the hatred we were raised with and recognize the beauty in the diversity of the human species. These two ideas, the acceptance of an infinitely complex world whose maintenance is our responsibility, and the recognition of the diversity of that which is human, encompass the meaning of wisdom and the aims of education.