The whole history of everything in 15 minutes: truth and philosophy in education for @little_mavis

There’s been some talk on Twitter about truth and philosophy in education. So I thought kantI’ do a pithy 15 minute BLOG, 15 minutes to write – 15 minutes to read. Sadly, it took longer than 15 minutes and I entirely regret having the idea. I’m not a philosopher so it’s quite possible none of this is true.

Anyway this is a jog through 2.000 tears of history.

In the beginning there was Plato; not true but it sounds appropriate. Plato was arguably an idealist. He was also arguably not an idealist. Welcome to the world of philosophy.

Plato wrote, that Socrates believed that you couldn’t come to know the world through experience.  That was before Socrates was put to death for thinking too much. It’s clear, even to philosophers, that no one thinks a lot about anything after being put to death. Aristotle on the other hand wrote about the world of experience.

So Plato arguably was an idealist, or at least it’s convenient for the purpose of this BLOG to say he was. In other words the truth is constructed in your head. Aristotle was arguably an empiricist who believed that the truth is derived from experiencing stuff.

Here still at about 4 BC you can see that the classic neo-traditionalist – progressive divide beginning to emerge. On the one hand are the idealists who are dealing with facts and attempting to understand the world through facts. On the other is the empiricist who is largely dealing with the world of experience. In the case of philosophers not necessarily play-based experience.

Still with me? Good I shall continue.

After Plato and Aristotle we had a lot of religious thinking, St Augustine etc. About 12 AD we had the Islamic scholar Ibn Rushd re-introducing Aristotle into Europe. It appears that the whole of Europe had forgotten Aristotle. Ibn Rushd was then put to death for thinking too much.

Then nothing happened for a few hundred years. Maybe the odd pope got into hot water, the protestant reformation n’ stuff but generally people were busy re-decorating, and tending the lawn, particularly in England where people do that kind of thing. Incidentally one complaint of the protestant reformers is that orthodox religion had got too, well Aristotally (if that’s a word). Some consider that both the Bible and the Qur’an consist of little more than re-workings, of the thoughts, of Aristotle and Plato. Many others think they are the literal word of God.

So let’s zoom forward (quickly) to the 16th century. We are still bickering about idealism, Descartes (I think therefore I am). So the truth still exists in your head, if you think about it a lot.

And who bickered with the idealists, why of course, the empiricists. By the early 18th century, empiricists such as Hume argued that truth is  derived from experience if you look at stuff a lot, make notes and do math’n’stuff. According to Hume though not a whole lot goes in people’s heads we simpy make representations of the world around us.

Then there was more argy bargy up until Kant in the 18th century. Kant tried to marry the two: idealism and empiricism. He said something along the lines of “we can’t know everything in our heads nor do we experience everything”.

So at this point (1781) we have some attempt to resolve the issue of idealism and empiricism. So that’s ok then? Well no not really. This is philosophy. No one agrees particularly. In fact there was some disagreement about what to disagree about. Attempts to resolve Kant still carries on particularly with the likes of; Roy Bhaskar and critical realism.

At about this time (give the odd decade or two) Hegel  starting to de-construct religion. Hegel was a dialectican. Human action is a conversation with history rather than the will of God.

Thankfully we’ve now arrived at the start of the 19th century. Philosophers are still largely disagreeing with each other. Rousseau had come and gone but left behind the social contract. Neo Trad’s still blame him for everything.

And Marx was thinking up ….well….erm Marxism. Who knew? From Marxism came… well Marxist theory but also Critical theory think; Frankfurt school and Habermas, postmodernist critical theory (Baudrillard), constructivist critical theory (Kinchelloe) and feminism (far too many to mention one or two).

We are now happily heading towards the back end of the 19th century. Nietzche was disagreeing with everyone. Kant, Marx, his mother, sister, women in general, men in general and even horses. He argued that people can rise above the mundane. Individuals exist to pursue their own agendas and to achieve some measure of power and control over their existence declaring “everyone should be the person that they want to be” (or similar). Then promptly went mad.

His thoughts led influenced; existentialism (Sartre),  Phenomenology (Heideggar, Husserl), Foucault and other 20th century social interactionists such as Mead and Blumer.  This led to social constructionism, which tried to bridge the gap between phenomenology and social interactionism. Reality or truth is largely constructed by the relationships between the objective knowledge that exists external to human knowing (for example: historical knowledge, language and structures) and the subjective interaction with that knowledge of the individual (for example: personal socio-biography etc).

And then ….ta dah…..  America. Up to this point Americans had been busy taming the Wild West, fighting “injuns” and dishing out such advice as “get off your horse and drink your milk”. Of course, any sensible continental European academic at the time would have responded; “I’m not sitting on a horse”. Incidentally it was also at about this time that the French decided that nobody in America was ever going to say anything useful.

The British on the other hand, not having a mind of their own, thought “I’m not sitting on a horse” but said “jolly good” and went to the fridge anyway. The divide between the anglo saxon philosophers, named the analytics, because it sounded good and the European philosophers, the continentals, named after the breakfast had begun to emerge.

Interestingly Nietzche’s madness has been blamed on a horse probably not one ridden by John Wayne. Despite having only been in the country for about twenty minutes American’s like Peirce, James, Dewey and George Herbert Mead came up with pragmatism, which is the view that truth is based on utility. Is there any point to it? No, well who cares?

Now we are well into the 20th century. One offshoot from Kant’s attempts to solve the idealist / empiricist problem was constructivism. This is the view that learning is constructed. It differs from constructionism in that it focuses more on the individual and less on the relationships and process of construction. Think Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner etc. 

Finally two of the epistemologies (four and five) merged when philosophy had a turn. No, not that kind of turn; Nietzche had that kind of turn. This was a linguistic turn. This challenged the use of the word truth. If we think Wittgenstein, Derrida etc and the post modernist view that truth doesn’t really exist objectively and well, it’s all relative (ist). Truth is whatever it is in the context it is being thought about or brought into being.

So that’s it my 15 minute jog through 2,000 years. All these are really ways of looking at educational truths, which one are you?: 

  1. The idealist: this is the view that you can talk all you like but teaching is really the consequence of whatever it is that’s going in a teachers head at any given time. Teachers will reason it out one way or another. The truth of teaching and learning resides in the individual teacher’s ability to reason stuff out
  2. The dialectician: this is the view that teaching is as a consequence of the cumulative historical knowledge of colleagues, staff room problem solving and the like, in conjunction with the debate on any given day about teaching and learning. The truth of teaching and learning resides in the discourse of practice over a period of time; problem – discussion – resolution – problem – discussion – resolution etc.
  3. The British empiricist / Positivist: this is the view that teaching can be defined in sets of universal principles that are then implemented into the classroom. The truth of teaching practice resides in universal / generalisable principles.
  4. The constructionist: This is the view that teaching is the relationship between the objective knowledge of research, policy makers and institution and it’s subjective interpretation in the classroom. the truth of teaching and learning resides in the relationships that exist between objective knowledge and subjective knowing.
  5. The pragmatist: this is the view that teaching and learning is whatever works in practice, in any given context. There are no universal principles but there are things you can do to improve practice. The truth of teaching and learning is simply engaging in practice and seeing “what works”.
  6. The Constructivist: this is the view that the truth of teaching and learning is constructed cognitively or socially, dependent on whether the view is from the Piagetian or Vygotskian camp
  7. The post modernist: there is no real way to ascertain the truth of teaching and learning just get on up and “do yer thang”…..! It’s all relative anyway. The truth of teaching and learning resides in simply being; a teacher.


This was done quick I take no responsibility for conceptual error, typos and just things that are plain wrong. I do take all credit for the good bits.


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