A Critical Review of the Aims of Education in the Western Tradition

A Critical Review of the Aims of Education in the Western Tradition

As the Western tradition has not been able to find a stable basis for its aims of education, the question is can a practical alternative system be developed that is rooted in transcendental rather than relative values and upon ends, not means? Abstract

[The Western tradition has not been able to find a stable basis on which to rest its aims of education. There is no consensus about the sensitive and highly influential domain of education to be achieved. Great philosophers of their times appeared with divergent criteria. Do these endless divergences reflect the impossibility to define and present truth? Such an approach naturally runs the risk of degenerating into reactionary evolution. Can a practical alternative system be developed that is rooted in transcendental rather than relative values and upon ends, not means? Where could such an exercise begin if not from the aims? Is it then possible to adopt a method that derives transcendental aims, which also possess consensus of the relevant constituencies? – Editors]


This paper explores aims of education as identified by various leading philosophers, pre-eminent nations and prominent ideologies belonging to the Western tradition. Its primary focus is on education for younger children.

The study of philosophers in the first part of this paper has been divided into two sections. The first reviews three classical philosophers, Plato, Rousseau and Locke, covering the period from the outset of philosophy as a subject of study in ancient Greece, about 400bc, to what is known as the European Age of Enlightenment, corresponding roughly to the late 18th century. The second section focuses on Dewey and Russell, both philosophers of the modern, pre-contemporary period.

Except for John Dewey, whose main strength is thought to be education, the remaining four thinkers are considered to have possessed more strength and exerted greater influence in spheres outside education. Nevertheless, Plato, Rousseau and Locke have particularly and deeply influenced the Western tradition of education. Russell, perhaps, was not equally influential in this respect, but his accomplishments in a huge variety of fields place him among the most versatile modern thinkers.

Following the distinguished philosophers, the paper undertakes an analysis of the aims of education set explicitly or implicitly by various nations and ideologies in its second part. The aims of classical Athens are briefly compared to those of its contemporary China, followed by brief analyses of the uncodified aims of public school system of imperial Britain; the ‘democratic’ American approach; the egalitarian perspective; modern liberal education; and finally, the contemporary economic approach to education in society.

The key purpose of this paper is to learn from the evolution of the Western idea of education. As more and more thought is being expended on the development of alternative systems of education, it is of crucial significance that lessons are learnt from the most formidable civilization in the world.

An attempt is made in this paper to counter each viewpoint presented by criticism generated thereupon from within the Western tradition. Islamic criteria or arguments, for instance, are not used to counter these Western views. This unilateral perspective is intended to reduce the potential fallacy of comparing apples with oranges.

Notably, the views of contemporary Western educational philosophers have not been included here, except in passing where particularly needed: Contemporary Western educational philosophy is a complex subject, like other contemporary domains of social science, and deserves much closer study.

It seems appropriate at this stage that more research avenues are identified that could lead to a foundation or nucleus for developing policy guidelines for the development of alternative systems of education. Whereas a civilization’s value system must provide the core elements for a comprehensive and integrated social science, the experience of other civilizations, both successes and failures, provides the chisel which can help carve the fine details for a suitable comprehensive social design.

Views on the Difficulty in Formulating Aims of Education

Aristotle is not particularly well known for expressing perplexity, but he speaks about the difficulties in setting the aims of education in his day:

What should be the character of this public education, and how young persons should be educated…there is disagreement about the subjects. For mankind are by no means agreed about the things to be taught, whether we look to virtue or the best life. Neither is it clear whether education is more concerned with intellectual or with moral virtue. The existing practice is perplexing; no one knows on what principle we should proceed —should the useful in life, or should virtue, or should the higher knowledge, be the aim of our training.

The contemporary educational philosopher T. W. Moore of the University of London concurs with Aristotle:

Amongst philosophers of education…there is quite considerable diversity of opinion about what exactly their task is or ought to be.

Time and developments have obviously not overcome this millennia-old quandary regarding the aims or purposes of education. When John Dewey suggested in his 1916 landmark classic Democracy and Education that “the educational process has no end beyond itself; it is its own end,” he was doubtless hoping to clear this persistent fog over the direction of education. However, this suggestion could only lead to contemporary discontent with the aimlessness that was its consequence.

The Christian tradition too has found it difficult to reconcile the avalanche of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ with its own orthodox tenets concerning the aims of education. But particularly conflicting have been the views of Enlightenment and modern philosophers about the aims and larger purposes of education, as sensitively portrayed by the French educational philosopher, Jacques Maritain:

Every educator worships a deity—for Spencer it is Nature; for Comte, Humanity; for Rousseau, Liberty; for Freud, Sex; for Durkheim and Dewey, Society; for Wundt, Culture; for Emerson, the Individual. Or perhaps everything is reduced to a question of adaptation to the child or of letting nature take its course, which is tantamount to denying education…if the modern world is so concerned with education, it is, as Chesterton says, because modern man has lost his bearing; he knows neither where he is nor where he is going.

Bertrand Russell has translated the differences in educational aims in terms of the kind of person that “we wish to produce”:

Dr [Thomas] Arnold wanted ‘humbleness of mind’, a quality not possessed by Aristotle’s ‘magnanimous man’. Nietzsche’s ideal is not Christianity. No more is Kant’s—for while Christ enjoins love, Kant teaches that no action of which love is the motive can be truly virtuous. And even people who agree as to the ingredients of a good character may differ as to their relative importance. One man will emphasize courage, another learning, another kindliness, and another rectitude. One man like the elder Brutus will put duty to the state above family affection; another like Confucius, will put family affection first. All these divergences will produce differences as to education. We must have some concept of the kind of person we wish to produce, before we can have any definite opinion as to the education which we consider best.

On the one hand are those who, like Dewey, consider the educational process as supreme in itself and which, if intelligently administered, tends to bring out the natural goodness in children. The other standpoint is that there are certain values to which all others are subordinate, and that these values should determine the aims of education.

Recently, Winch and Gingell have pointed out the acute problem in setting the aims of education when the underlying values of a society are incompatible with each other. Their specific point of reference is the modern Western society where people of various denominations cohabit. They specifically mention Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists in their examples.

Moore points out the divergence in educational aims that necessarily arises out of variation in cultures and difference in philosophies:

The kind of knowledge and skill which would have satisfied Plato’s requirement would not have been much to the point in Spencer’s England. James Mill, Thomas Arnold, Cardinal Newman and John Dewey each formulated a different notion of what would count as an educational man. Present-day shapers of societies, like the rulers of Cuba, emergent Africa, and China will no doubt have very different notions from those of 19th century Europe. Each will see the educated man in terms of what social demands will be made on such a man.

It was T. S. Eliot who perhaps best encapsulated the wide divergence in the various assertions about the aims of education when he said:

When writers attempt to state the purpose of education, they are doing one of two things; they are eliciting what they believe to have been the unconscious purpose always, and thereby giving their own meaning to the history of the subject; or they are formulating what may not have been, or may have been only fitfully, the real purpose in the past, but should in their opinion be the purpose directing development in the future.

The distinguished writer seems to imply here that there cannot be intrinsic, inherent and undeniable aims of education.

At the end of this discussion, it is useful to reflect on this quote from a thoughtful critic of modern education:

The most serious weakness in modern education is the uncertainty about its aims. A glance over history reminds us that the most vital and effective systems of education have envisaged their objectives quite definitely, in terms of personal qualities and social situations…By contrast, education in the liberal democracies is distressingly nebulous in its aims.

Presented below is an analysis of the stated aims of education. Included in the discussion are those aims that, though unstated, have been important enough to become obvious to posterity. The analysis is categorized under aims suggested by (i) classical Western philosophers, (ii) modern Western philosophers, and (iii) various prominent Western societies and ideologies, such as imperial Britain, the democratic tradition, the liberal left, etc.

The Classical Western Philosophers

In the period from the first blossoming of Western philosophy in ancient Greece until the European Enlightenment, three of the most influential tracts in the Western tradition are widely considered to be Plato’s Republic, Rousseau’s Émile and John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education.


Plato is the earliest important thinker on education. He is also the first to have laid down a comprehensive outlook of education that was integrated with his views of society and its aims.

In Republic, Plato’s primary aim of education is to produce the elites needed to govern the ideal city. The supreme product of the education process is the philosopher-king who rules the city. The highest aim of education for Plato is the knowledge of good, which in turn instills the four great virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. As Dewey puts it, no one expresses better than Plato the fact that a society is stably organized when each individual is what he is best inclined by nature. It is in this way that he is useful to others and contributes best to the whole, and that society becomes a just order. It is the aim of education to discover these virtues in its citizens and progressively train them for the best use of society. Although there appears some contradiction in Plato’s account of whether these virtues are essentially present in human nature or are created through the education process, the former thought seems more plausible. However, not everyone possesses all characteristics, and thus it is the business of education to identify those with the higher level of qualities and then to develop these to their full potential. For instance, citizens possessing a more courageous disposition become the defenders of the city in war. Their limit of development is fixed though, by lack of reason; citizens possessing more of this trait, in turn, are capable of higher education.

The theory of forms is possibly Plato’s best known contribution to philosophy. Broadly, he maintains that knowledge is acquired, not in the world of experience, but by coming to know the “forms,” a term that could be translated as ideas, and these forms are not necessarily present in some other spatio-temporal dimension. Thus, truth may be accessed by studying the world of ideas, entry into which is gained by reasoning, rather than by studying the world of experience, which is entered by sense experience. It is this knowledge of the good that is the most sought aim of education in Plato’s Republic. To achieve knowledge, Plato prescribes the development of habits of mind that allow a person to see the form of good through tough intellectual training in subjects like mathematics, which develops ancillary virtues such as intelligence, concentration, memory and persistence, essential both in further study and in living life well.

Karl Popper, in his 1945 classic, The Open Society and Its Enemies, voiced the view that Plato’s Republic is not advisable reading as a manual for good governance. Most forms of government discussed in Republic bear little resemblance or relevance to modern republics. Indeed, the city portrayed in Republic strikes one as unduly harsh, rigid and un-free…a kind of precursor to modern totalitarianism.
Russell says of him:

Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals. It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him.

He thinks that Plato would have said that wisdom consists in knowledge of the good from which it follows that whoever knows what is good does what is right, based on Socrates’ doctrine that no man sins wittingly. To Russell, this view seems remote from reality.

To Plato, lying is a government prerogative and one “royal lie” will deceive the rest of the city, being that God created men of three types: the best made of gold are the guardians; the second best made of silver should be the soldiers; and the common herd made of iron and brass should do manual labor. What Plato did not realize, according to Russell, is that compulsory acceptance of such myths is incompatible with philosophy, and involves a kind of education that stunts intelligence.

Dewey is perhaps most scathing in his criticism of Plato. He believes that Plato had no perception of the uniqueness of individuals. Without the recognition that each individual constitutes his own class, his incommensurability with others, there could be no recognition of the infinite diversity of tendencies that an individual is capable of. Hence education would, in Dewey’s opinion of Plato, soon reach a static limit in each class, for only diversity makes change and progress.


John Locke was arguably one of the most influential of the Enlightenment and pre-Enlightenment thinkers, and contributed enormously to the subsequent development of modern Western thought. He was an empiricist, influencing the development of epistemology, political philosophy and the liberal theory. He heavily influenced the American Revolutionaries, as reflected in the American Declaration of Independence.

Locke played a defining role in 18th-century education theory, through two major claims, the theory of mind and theory of self. Before Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Locke had already presented his theory of mind in the very influential Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690, contending that a child’s mind was a “tabula rasa,” or blank tablet of wax, i.e. it did not contain innate ideas. Significantly, in making this assertion, Locke stood up against the Christian view of man being inherently possessive of the original sin, as well as the existing Cartesian view, which held that man inherently possessed basic logical propositions.

Locke’s ‘empty mind’ is impressed by experience. The implications of this for education are manifest in Locke’s historical opening statement to Some Thoughts, “…of all the men we meet with, Nine Parts of Ten are what they are, Good or Evil, useful or not, by their Education. ‘Tis that which makes the great Difference in Mankind.”

Locke’s second vital contribution stems from his theory of self. He argued that since the mind of a child is empty, it is more receptive to impressions than when he grows up: “The little, and almost insensible Impressions on our tender Infancies have very important and lasting Consequences…” Therefore, the “association of ideas” is significant in the formation of the self. Locke was thus, for instance, against letting a “foolish maid” convince a child that “goblins and spirites” are associated with the night, for “darkness shall ever afterwards bring with it those frightful ideas, and they shall be so joined, that he can no more bear the one than the other.”
Some Thoughts was a reaction of Locke’s disapproval of existing educational methods. Many of his ideas are still among the objects aimed at, rather than achieved, by educationalists. The original purpose of Locke in Some Thoughts was the individual education of a gentleman’s son, not the formation of a school system. The essential aim of Lockean education is the development of virtue. For him, virtue is a combination of reason and self-denial, “that a man is able to deny himself his own desires, cross his own inclinations, and purely follow what reason directs as best, though the appetite lean the other way.”

Fundamentally though, Locke’s educational philosophy is an effort to show how constitutional monarchy might be preserved and improved. As befitting his age, Locke suggested that the children of the poor should be kept away from schools, because the elite would fall into the company of undesirables. For Locke, education has more a sense of upbringing than school-based education in the modern sense. He was writing more for the class of people whose sons—daughters barely received mention—were to grow up into gentlemen under the individual guidance of tutors. These were people who were interested in how their sons grew into satisfactory manhood, instead of simply in their intellectual development.

Although Rousseau studied and was deeply influenced by Locke, he was enraged by his teaching methods: “People make great fuss about discovering the best way to teach children to read. They invent ‘bureaux’ and cards, then turn the nursery into a printer’s shop. Locke would have them to read by means of a dice. What a fine idea! And the pity of it. There is a better way than any of those, and one which is generally overlooked —it consists in the desire to learn.”

Bertrand Russell has this to say of Locke’s — and Rousseau’s —educational model:

Both consider only the education of an aristocratic boy, to which one man’s whole time is devoted. However excellent might be the results of such a system, no man with a modern outlook would give it serious consideration…The system is therefore one which can only be employed by a privileged caste; in a just world its existence would be impossible…we cannot regard a method of education as satisfactory if it is one which could not possibly be universal…Even a very attenuated form of democratic principle is absent from the treatises of Locke and Rousseau. Although the latter was a disbeliever in aristocracy, he never perceived the implications of his disbelief where education was concerned.

Twentieth century British educationist Lester Smith hopes that the British education system does not degenerate back into the Lockean view that strict obedience is all-important. Critics of Locke also feel that, keen as he was on clarity of knowledge, he did not escape confounding sense-knowledge with intellectual knowledge, so that one may derive not only different but conflicting doctrines from the premises that his theories afford, i.e. support for both idealism and positivism.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s intellectual range and achievements are staggering. He made epochal contributions to political theory, literature and education. His educational tract, Émile, transformed the debate about child upbringing and was very largely instrumental in altering the Western perception of childhood. He overturned conventional wisdom on the nature of childhood and education with a radical discourse in this fictional novel. In their engaging and brilliantly researched account, Edmonds and Eidinow state:

Rousseau’s bold prescription for how children should be nurtured and educated to lead their lives fully can be found in Émile. Initially, the infant is to be unconstricted. In this period of ‘negative education’, there is a recommendation that the child be deprived of all books, bar one: Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” (1719), which provides a master class in survival and self sufficiency. By bringing up the boy, Émile, outside the community, his tutor will enable the child to learn to know his own will, and not be prey to popular opinion and the values of ‘the conventional world’. (Among many passages acutely discomforting to a 21st century western outlook, Rousseau proclaimed that girls are not like boys, since “dependence is a state natural to women”.)

Probably the most significant aspect of Rousseau’s educational thinking is his fresh start. Although he had closely studied Plato and Locke before him, his genius was untrammeled by precedent or tradition. Education in the USA and in Europe was profoundly influenced by Rousseau, and the English Education Act of 1944 is considered to be dramatically derived from his words and thoughts.

The fundamentals of Rousseau’s educational creed are ‘nature’ and ‘freedom.’ He believed that children should develop ‘according to nature’ and enjoy freedom. Much debated, this approach leads to a non-interventionist, hands-off teaching/learning process. This is based on the belief that “man is by nature good but becomes corrupted by the evils of society.” Thus, education in accord with nature furnished the goal as well as the method of instruction and discipline. This goal in education was actually the first step in ensuring a more social society, where natural law is seen to accomplish harmony and balance and to get rid of artificial man-imposed coercive restrictions.

In his celebrated work, Dewey has acknowledged the grand influence of Rousseau in the Western tradition of education but come up with interesting criticism of the classical genius. Firstly, he suggests that Rousseau has been misunderstood in terms of his emphasis on the natural development of man. Dewey feels that Rousseau opposed the existing state of affairs in education and child rearing on the ground that formed neither the citizen (contrived) nor the man (natural). Rousseau thus only proffered the latter rather than the former, in the existing unsatisfactory state of affairs. However, Dewey suggests that there are many sayings of Rousseau which point to the formation of citizens as ideally the higher goal. Nevertheless, Dewey goes on to say:

The notion of a spontaneous normal development…is pure mythology. The natural or native powers furnish the initiating and limiting forces in all education; they do not furnish its ends or aims. There is no learning except from a beginning in unlearned powers, but learning is not a matter of the spontaneous overflow of the unlearned powers. Rousseau’s contrary opinion is doubtless due to the fact that he identified God with Nature; to him the original powers are wholly good, coming directly from a wise and good creator…When men attempt to determine the uses to which the original activities shall be put, they interfere with a divine plan. The interference by social arrangements with Nature, God’s work, is the primary source of corruption in individuals…That neglect, suppression and premature forcing of some instincts at the expense of others, are responsible for many avoidable ills, there can be no doubt. But the moral is not to leave them alone to follow their own ‘spontaneous development’, but to provide an environment which shall organize them.

Although Rousseau came to be widely considered the prophet of liberty and freedom, which led to the rise of individualism in the West, his writings sometimes provide acute contradictions.

Modern Western Philosophers of Education

Noam Chomsky holds that the two leading thinkers of 20th century in the West were John Dewey and Bertrand Russell. These two pre-contemporary giants are considered in this section.


John Dewey is a preeminent Pragmatist who dominated the educational stage in the first half of the 20th century, especially in the United States. Dewey’s central concept of education was greater emphasis on broadening intellect and developing problem solving and critical thinking skills. For him, education was not mere teaching of facts, but the integration of skills and knowledge into pupils’ lives. As a Pragmatist, he is concerned with immediate issues that have practical bearing on human interests rather than with long-term considerations of purpose and value:

It is well to remind ourselves that education as such has no aim. Only persons, parents, and teachers etc, have aims, not an abstract idea like education…Even the most valid aim which can be put in words will, as words, do more harm than good unless one recognizes that they are not aims, but rather suggestions to educators as to how to observe, how to look ahead, and how to choose in liberating the energies of the concrete situations in which they find themselves.

For him, education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform since society can formulate its own purpose through education and can organize its own means and resources, thereby shaping itself with definitiveness and moving its economy in the direction it desires.

In his child-centered education revolution, Dewey was much influenced by Rousseau and had similar great faith in natural goodness, if children were brought up under wholesome, intelligent influences. For Dewey, education was a device to facilitate democracy, which to him was the most desirable kind of society and a cooperative way of life.

Although Dewey’s impact was more potent and immediate in the United States, there are some question marks about the effectiveness with which some of his ideas were integrated into the practices of American public schools. This could be attributed in part to the diffuseness that permeates much of Dewey’s writing, which may have caused him to be often misinterpreted, even by fellow academics.

When education is allied to the practice and institutions of democracy, either for the production of ‘democratic’ man, or for education itself to be democratic, there is significant difficulty in precisely describing the term ‘democracy.’ This is because of the vast interpretations that it enjoys. Although the term carries strong overtones of commendation, unfortunately, democratic decisions and practices are sometimes quite compatible with injustice, ineptitude and disaster. Plato feared what democracy could lead to and thus threw his considerable intellectual weight against it.

Then, if it is claimed that it is in the public interest for society to be democratic, it will be in the public interest too to provide whatever is necessary, education included, to sustain democracy. But this could be said for any form of social polity. If it were in the public interest to provide a fascist or a communist society, it would be in the public interest to provide a fascist or a communist type of education. So, the argument for allying education with democracy quickly runs into circularity.

Moore also argues that, given the relatively short time that children spend in school and the demands made therein on them, there are more urgent things to be learned in school than elements of democratic politics. Moreover, supposing that there is a case for democracy in schools, which of the various competing versions of democracy is more appropriate?


Bertrand Russell exerted a major influence on modern philosophy, especially in the English-speaking world. He influenced major later philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Ayer, Gödel, Popper, Searle, and many others. Russell characterized moral and political writings as lying outside the scope of philosophy. Although a prolific writer on a wide variety of subjects, his best known contributions to the field of education are two books, On Education and Education and the Social Order.

Russell distinguishes between education of character and education in knowledge, which he calls instruction. In the controversy between the education of aristocrats, to which class Russell himself belonged by birth, and democratic education, he favored the latter. Similarly, he favored education as a conduit for mental delights as against education for material goods. He also believed that knowledge was not intrinsically particularly useful, unless it created some utility.

For Russell, the aim of education is to give a sense of the value of things other than domination, to help create wise citizens of a free community, to encourage a combination of citizenship with liberty, individual creativeness, which means that we regard a child as a gardener regards a young tree, as something with an intrinsic nature which will develop into an admirable form given proper soil, air and light.

Russell firmly believed that the proper physical, emotional and intellectual care of the young should lead to four characteristics which form the basis of an ideal character: vitality, courage, sensitiveness and intelligence. He says, in his typical style:

A community of men and women possessing vitality, courage, sensitiveness and intelligence, in the highest degree that education can produce, would be very different from anything that has hitherto existed. Very few people would be unhappy…It is education that gives us…bad qualities, and education that must give us the opposite virtues. Education is the key to the new world.

Russell warned against influencing character by moral considerations. In this respect, he was the anti-thesis of Dewey, as he wanted knowledge to be imparted solely for intellectual purpose, not to prove moral or political conclusions. Dewey on the other hand thought that the impact of the knowledge on conduct was the most important problem of moral education. For Dewey, it was futile to conceive the moral end as the unifying end of education unless learning affected character.

As far as instruction is concerned, Russell held that seven chief qualities, which he called intellectual virtues, should result from intellectual education, including curiosity, open mindedness, belief that knowledge is possible though difficult, patience, industry, concentration, and exactness.
Given Russell’s political redoubt apart from his more obvious philosophical bearings, his expression suffers from platitude and diffuseness; rather than presenting clear and coherent solutions and policy statements, he resorts to trite truisms, as he himself admits elsewhere. As a point in case, although he does emphasize ‘love’ for children to overcome fears and to liberate their consciousness, a reader will be hard pressed to translate his clichéd style into concrete policy at any given level of implementation.

Although Russell attaches considerable importance to forming one’s own opinions, this seems to betray an unwarranted confidence in an individual’s ability to eschew dependence on experts. He is not blind, however, to the value of expert knowledge and does concede in one of his more famous principles, “When the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be regarded as certain.” This, however, appears to be a cliché, especially since Russell offers no assistance in distinguishing genuine experts from cocksure prophets and dishonest charlatans.

Aims of Education in Different Countries and Ideologies

A general state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the pre-dominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind leading by natural tendency to one over the body.

— John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859

Just as philosophers vary in their views on the aims of education, so different cultures and countries diverge in this respect, sometimes to the point of sharp contrast. This section takes a look at the aims of education set explicitly or implicitly by some of the prominent nations and polities.

Writing in 1926, Bertrand Russell presented a comparative analysis of education and the effects it produced on civilizations in his On Education. He pointed out various similarities between Athenian and traditional Chinese education, including learning of classical texts, outward practice of worship rituals to gods, inculcation of an elegant skepticism, and refined enjoyment of life. However, he also found differences between the two people that he partly attributed to education, due to which Athens self-destructed whereas the Chinese long remained a stable civilization: The Greeks were energetic while the Chinese were relatively lazy. Thus, the Greeks devoted their energies to art and science and mutual extermination, in all of which they achieved unprecedented success. They destroyed themselves out of their passionate beliefs, whereas Chinese education produced art and stability, although it failed to produce science or progress. For this reason, Chinese education, Russell feels, is not suited to the modern world.

Russell characterized the English public school system, or Dr. Thomas Arnold’s system as he calls it, as aristocratic. It imparted those virtues which were needed for the aristocracy to survive. He says, this system sacrificed intellect, since it creates doubt; sympathy, since it interferes with governing ‘inferior’ races; kindliness, for the sake of toughness; and imagination, for firmness. The product of this was to be energetic, stoical, physically fit, and possessed of certain unalterable beliefs, high standards of rectitude, and a conviction that he had an important mission in the world. Russell is surprised at the results achieved, but suggests that subject populations will no longer obey even the most virtuous rulers, and that thus aristocracy is out of date.

On the British education system, Winch and Gingell in their landmark policy study, Philosophy and Educational Policy, point out that its aims were never formally codified. However, it was obvious from the beginning, they claim, what its main purposes were: (i) to provide basic mass education to the future working class, combining basic literacy and numeracy with a supportive attitude to the existing socio-political order; (ii) to provide access to grammar schools; a variant of traditional education, to those destined for higher levels, the gentry; and (iii) to deliberately isolate a small sector of secondary education from the mass education system. This ‘public school’ system aimed at maintaining the political elite that would run the British Empire. This system, rigidly hierarchical and exclusionary as it was, and strongly committed to racial superiority and the dominance of ‘lesser’ people, was understandably reluctant to explicitly admit what its real aims were.

While Russell maintains that the Dr. Arnold system sacrificed intelligence to “virtue,” the code of the Board of Education, issued in 1904, ironically states: “The purpose of the Public Elementary School is to form and strengthen the character and to develop the intelligence of the children entrusted to it…”

It will be seen that this elitism works with a variety of political systems, not necessarily under authoritarian regimes. In the UK in the 18th century and 19th centuries, elites governed through elections via limited franchise. However, modern democracies are also considered by some serious political theorists to be, in fact, modes of competition between rival elites.

While the British are particularly well known for being intensely class conscious, it is said that class plays a significant part in education in the United States as well, despite the assertion to the contrary in its Declaration of Independence. A well known study of equal opportunities in America found that “there is a strong relationship between social status and rank in school.” More recent studies appear to confirm the status quo, saying “public education, wittingly or not, has become inextricably involved in the process of reproducing and legitimating class, race, gender, and other inequalities,” and that schools have helped “more often than not, to create and justify the illusion of meritocracy, but not its reality.”

While the American education system broadly proceeded upon a democratic path of development, it did so, arguably, at a cost. This cost included the institutionalization of racial bigotry and segregation in some parts of America. Furthermore, the development of a secondary education system, in reflecting the diversity of the American society, compromised educational standards in order to accommodate all constituencies comfortably. In addition, the adoption of a secular education system also left many parents unhappy.

Some problems in adopting democratic methods in education have been pointed out earlier. It can be added here that democratic electorates inevitably possess limited perspectives and tend to be more easily swayed by short-term considerations. They have limited knowledge of policy alternatives and are readily moved by demagogy and existing fashions. Then, there is the ever present danger of ‘tyranny of the majority,’ as reflected in the above-mentioned imposition of secular education against the wishes of a minority of the population. It would appear, however, that the form of democracy appropriate for schools, supposing any to be so, would be the paternalistic kind — one that maintains the institutional apparatus of democracy, accedes to pupils’ opinion as far as possible, but where the teaching staff would set aside their opinions when these go against the children’s interests. Principals and teachers who recognize this rather obvious point, however, run the risk of being criticized for practicing a ‘sham’ democracy. The practice of democracy in schools must be restricted by the purpose for which schools exist: the education of children and concern for their long-term welfare.

Similar difficulties are encountered in dealing with ‘equality’ as a fundamental tenet of education. The difficulties lie particularly in the term’s exasperating vagueness. The general meaning of ‘equal’ is ‘same.’ However, in a political or philosophical context, as in slogans such as “all men are equal,” such a meaning is clearly false, since men are not in any interesting sense the same. It may be said then that all men are not equal, but that they deserve equal treatment. Although this sense avoids the previous problems, it soon runs into other difficulties. Surely everybody cannot conceivably be treated alike. We do not think, for instance, that the innocent can be treated as the guilty, or the sick as the healthy, or the women as men, or indeed the children as adults. An egalitarian, faced with the consequences of his logic, would declare that all men should be treated equally only when their needs and deserts are the same. Plainly, this disclaimer is incontestable, but it hardly lies within the purview of equality, since it concerns the sense of justice.

The educational implications of this analysis are significant. If ‘equality’ is taken as equal, or if it implies treating all children as equal, the suggestion is obviously absurd. At this point, the egalitarian might retort that he is concerned not with an abstract idea but with ‘equality of opportunity.’ But this move raises difficulties of its own, primary in which is that such an access may be impossible or undesirable. Educational goods such as schools and teachers themselves differ in quality. Such an approach may be undesirable since all schools may not be suitable for all children. “Equality in education, then, will not do as a theory. At best it is a muddled way of calling for justice…An ‘equal’ society of ‘equal’ men would not meet our common standards of morality and appropriateness; a just society would.”

Generally speaking, a liberal education, as the name suggests, is education for freedom. James Freedman describes it in the following terms:

A liberal education ought to make a person independent of mind, skeptical of authority and received views, prepared to forge an identity for himself or herself, and capable of becoming an individual not bent upon copying other persons.

Accordingly, liberal education emphasizes the development of critical thinking skills necessary to attain individual autonomy. Critical thinking posses a penchant for fostering an aggressive, skeptical, questioning bent of mind that tends to problematize situations as it seeks new understanding.

‘Freedom,’ like equality, is another complicated and ambiguous concept that carries strong emotive force. The idea of freedom is not being impeded and being left alone to do what one wants. A complication in this is that one may be hindered by circumstances that impose physical, mental, financial or social restraint. Some feel that true freedom can only be cultivated by self-examination and guarding against idleness, compulsive busyness, and pointless desires; something of a moral transformation.

This point is illustrated in Dostoevsky’s famous The Brothers Karamazov, where he contrasts worldly freedom with the freedom cultivated by monks, presented by the character Elder Zossima. Zossima argues that worldly freedom is often a form of slavery to man’s unnecessary desires, and thus worldly freedom is understood as the ability to satisfy desires. For the poor, this means envy and murder; for they have rights but no way of satisfying their desires. Zossima contrasts worldly freedom against monastic freedom, characterized by obedience, fasting and prayer. It is only through these that one is able to cut away superfluous needs, humble oneself and thereby gain true freedom. The monk’s, he contends, is a more vigilant pursuit of freedom.

Another difficulty in allowing freedom is that it may be abused, especially in the case of children, who can have more freedom than is good for them. It is also possible that not all freedoms are good. The teacher is thus bound to discourage some freedoms.

Since liberalism places a significant emphasis on personal fulfillment and, hence, on what are sometimes called self-regarding considerations, it has been accused of emphasizing self-fulfillment to such a degree that it ignores the need to pay due regard to the interests of others.

Since the Western conception of education is deeply rooted in the need for education to prepare young people to live economically satisfying lives, the question of the relationship between economics and the education system is an obvious one. Recently, this relationship has further been supplemented after the unsatisfactory consequences of the democratic approach to education. Thus, the currently fashionable answer is the creation of an educational market, which entails the use of an economic mechanism to reconcile the preferences of different groups in a democracy. Briefly, the solution is to allow as many conceptions of education as there is demand for them. A conception will flourish or wither by the rules of demand and supply.

The obvious disadvantage of such a system is that the interests of the whole society or the state are not taken into account. It is increasingly being felt that “democracy is no longer a political concept; rather it is wholly an economic concept in which unattached individuals – supposedly making ‘rational’ choices on an unfettered market – will ultimately lead to a better society.”

It is arguable whether markets can provide solutions to problems that intrinsically require cooperation directed by a central body. Winch and Gingell elaborate:

Although the child is the beneficiary of the education, it is the parent who chooses and pays for it. The parent is the judge of the quality of what is on offer. But what of those children whose parents cannot afford such an education or who are not sufficiently knowledgeable to make a good choice? They will clearly be disadvantaged. It looks as if a market system of education is designed to favor the rich, knowledgeable and powerful.

Another criticism of the economic relation of education is that, in a market-led education system, there are grounds for suspecting that some parents would fail to educate their children. Although everyone benefits from an educated population, parents have to pay the high costs, with negligible addition to their own well-being, in Western societies. They might pay on account of love or a sense of duty, but it is far from clear that all parents would ensure that their children are educated.


The Western tradition has not been able to find a stable basis on which to rest its aims of education. A study of the evolution of Western educational thought presents a picture of reactionism: each new solution immediately begs a corresponding new problem, and always threatens to bring the older edifice down.

Philosophers and philosophies of education appear destined to be contested vehemently. With relativism as the modern basis of the Western civilization, there is no consensus about what the sensitive and highly influential domain of education is supposed to achieve.

Different philosophers, each considered a great heavyweight in his own right, appear to possess their own criteria on which they build their thoughts and attack those of others, who are considered equally great. Even a fundamental term like ‘virtue’ is defined variously by different great philosophers.

While these differences and debates will surely be seen by many as a greatly positive activity, essential for change, dynamism and progress and a guarantee against the setting in of stagnation and degeneration, the question must surely be asked whether these endless divergences might not simply be a reflection of the impossibility of defining truth — and therefore, by extension, the impossibility of the presence of truth. Can possession of truth be claimed, without a corresponding ability to define it? This question about ‘truth’ is usually always answered in the modern Western tradition in terms of methods and processes — the pursuit of truth — instead of ends. Such an approach naturally runs the risk of degenerating into reactionary evolution, where a civilization is constantly shifting ground in reaction to changes in the functional environment of a society.


The crucial succeeding question that begs to be asked is this: can a practical alternative system be developed that is rooted in transcendental rather than relative values? Upon ends instead of upon means?

Where could such an exercise begin if not from the aims? Is it then possible to adopt a method that derives transcendental aims, which also possess an acceptable level of consensus of the relevant constituencies?

This article was constructed with a view to sharpening the question, with the hope of generating a more precise basis for an acceptable solution.


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· The author, an IPS associate, is Trustee and Secretary of the Risalah Foundation, a non-governmental organization dedicated to researching, assisting and setting up Islamic schools

Aristotle, “Politics” viii. 2. 1337a33. Berlin edition.

TW Moore, “Philosophy of Education” (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), p 1

John Dewey, “Democracy and Education” (Cosmo Classics, New Delhi, 2006), p 52

WO Lester Smith, “Education” (Penguin Books, 1966), p 57

Jacques Maritain, “The Education of Man” (Doubleday, New York, 1962), p 65

Maritain, p 41

Bertrand Russell, “On Education” (Unwin Hyman, 1989), p 33

Lester Smith, p 58

Christopher Winch & John Gingell, “Philosophy and Educational Policy” (RoutledgeFalmer, 2004), p 9

Moore, p 26

TS Eliot, “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture” (Faber, 1948), p 96

MVC Jeffrys, “Glaucon: An Inquiry into the Aims of Education” (Pitman, 1950), p 61

Moore, p 115

Dewey, Democracy, p 94


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