Climbing Down from the Tower

Term paper, Philosophy of Education (a.k.a. what I’ve been losing sleep over this week)
This spring, Quebecers went to the polls in a provincial election. Political scientist Henry Milner took the election as an opportunity to conduct a study, the purpose of which was to determine the efficacy of financial disincentives. For the study, Milner recruited 143 students from Vanier College, and offered them $25 to cast their ballots – but also asked them to complete two sets of questions about the main issues and candidates involved in the campaign. The study concluded that money was “not conclusively” a voting incentive (Howarth); more to the point, it revealed an alarming ignorance of local politics among college students. In interviews with the students, Milner learned that few students engage in political discussions with their parents; clearly, students are not discovering their political world in the home or the classroom. If students are not learning about the politics that shape their lives – politics that determine the content of the courses they are taking, the standards against which their success will be measured, the wage they earn, the age at which they can drink or drive or consent to sexual relations – how will these same students become engaged, motivated, contributing members of a democratic society? Regardless of detractors who would have us believe that politically engaged teaching amounts to indoctrination, educators must accept that one of the most crucial roles we play is that of model citizen, and that our job is not only to provide our students with knowledge and skill, but also to initiate them into life outside the academy.

In Democracy and Education, John Dewey defines education as “the means of … social continuity of life” (2). According to Dewey, the purpose of education is a collective one that ensures maintenance of the “characteristic life” of society; as such, the teacher’s role is to initiate students “into the interests, purposes, information, skill, and practice” of the larger group (3). The Dewey model truly is one of initiation, and Dewey makes no pretence to neutrality; social democracy is the ultimate arrangement, a “widely accessible” and enjoyable social model which provides “a better quality of human experience” (Experience and Education 34). Dewey is aware of the potential for indoctrination in his scheme, but argues that effective teachers are absolutely capable of initiating their students into the group values without slipping into proselytizing:

It is possible of course to abuse the office, and to force the activity of the young into channels which express the teacher’s purpose rather than that of the pupils. But the way to avoid this danger is not for the adult to withdraw entirely. The way is, first, for the teacher to be intelligently aware of the capacities, needs and past experiences of those under instruction, and, secondly, to allow the suggestion made to develop into a plan and project by means of the further suggestions contributed and organized into a whole by the members of the group. … The development occurs through reciprocal give-and-take, the teacher taking but not being afraid also to give (71-72).

The social revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which created an atmosphere of radical social change and witnessed the second wave of feminism, significant advances in civil rights, and, here in Quebec, the birth of the Cegep system, was wide-ranging and it’s not surprising that educational philosophy was one area in which radical thinking manifested itself. Naturally, for every radical thinker who wants to overhaul the system based on a new vision of education, knowledge, and engagement, there is a more conservative argument that prefers to modify the existing system, and maintain those elements which protect and preserve the sanctity of the academy. In ‘Instruction and Indoctrination,’ R. F. Atkinson argues that moral instruction in schools must be clearly about moral questions, rather than in moral issues, primarily because “there are open options in morality” (171) which make it virtually impossible to set clear standards and criteria for learning. Atkinson believes that the teacher’s job is instructing, and that instruction is a “rational process” which requires “no higher degree of conviction … than is warranted by the nature of the support available” (172). On the other hand, indoctrination, which Atkinson sees as the inevitable other side of the educational coin, requires no understanding, only “conviction or assent;” thus for the student who is “indoctrinated merely, although what he believes may be true and capable of justification, it will not be possible to say that he knows it” (172).
Atkinson’s contemporary, R.S. Peters, argues in ‘Education as Initiation’ that moral and political issues do have a place in the classroom. Peters, whose arguments clearly echo Dewey’s, uses familiar language when he posits that education “consists in initiating others into activities, modes of conduct and thought which have standards written into them by reference to which it is possible to act, think and feel with varying degrees of skill, relevance and taste” (107). Like his predecessor, Peters sees education as “a form of ‘socialisation’” which prepares students for life outside the academy (89). However, for Peters, the value of education is not diminished by this external motivation:

People … think that education must be for the sake of something extrinsic that is worthwhile, whereas the truth is that being worth-while is part of what is meant by calling it ‘education’ … what is worth-while [is] an end brought about by the process or … a pattern imposed on the child’s mind (92).

Peters clearly rejects the so-called “banking concept” of education (Critical Pedagogy on the Web: Paolo Freire, par. 3), in which knowledge is regarded as a commodity that is meted out to students by instructors. Instead, Peters characterizes education as a multilayered process through which the student learns not only content but also caring; thus, the teacher’s job is “to get [people] to see the world differently in relation to themselves” (98). In this model, the teacher is not expected to remain neutral because the task at hand requires the teacher to be a model of the desired state of mind (106). Unlike those who argue for the ivory tower model of education, Peters believes that education in a vacuum is “absurd”; one cannot develop “an abstract skill called ‘critical thinking’ without handing on anything concrete to be critical about” (104). Like Dewey a half century before him, Peters believes not only that “the job of the educator is … to present what is worth wanting in such a way that is creates new wants and stimulates new interests,” but also that “if teachers do not do this others will – advertisers, for instance, and other members of ‘the peer group'” (109). In short, our job as teachers is to equip our students with the knowledge, analytical skills and a genuine model of political and moral engagement.
A decade later, Jane Roland Martin argues for an even more radical pedagogy. In ‘Needed: A New Paradigm for Liberal Education,’ Martin posits a pedagogical model based on “a change in our consciousness so that we see ourselves not as self-sustaining atoms, but as dependent, contributing members of a group” (57). Martin sees previous educational models as inadequate because such models ignore “the development of artistic performance, the acquisition of language skills including the learning of a second language, and education for effective moral action as opposed simply to moral judgment” (42). Instead, so-called liberal education produces “ivory tower” people who know about the outside world, but do not care about that world, nor do they work to improve it (44). Although these people can “reach flawless moral conclusions,” they have “neither the sensitivity nor the skill to carry them out effectively” (44).
In the past quarter-century, the debate has continued. One of the prominent opponents of the politicized classroom, Stanley Fish, has argued that “teachers should not take it upon themselves to cure the ills of the world, but should instead do the job they are trained and paid to do” (‘Always Academicize’, par. 1). As far as Fish is concerned, educators need not apologize for what Jane Martin scorns as the ‘ivory tower.’ Education is not a means to an end; it is the end itself: “Marx famously said that our job is not to interpret the world, but to change it. In the academy, however, it is exactly the reverse” (‘Why We Built the Ivory Tower’, par. 2). Fish adamantly states that regardless of the worth and valor of correcting injustice or the “inculcation of patriotic and family values” (‘Always Academicize’, par. 1), the classroom is not the venue for such work. This is not to suggest that Fish advocates a value-less classroom; however, the values espoused are exclusive to the academy:

My point is not that academics should refrain from being political in an absolute sense – that is impossible – but that they should engage in politics appropriate to the enterprise they signed onto … things like curriculum, department leadership, the direction of research, the content and manner of teaching, establishing standards – everything that is relevant to the responsibilities we take on when we accept a paycheck (‘Ivory Tower’, par. 6)

As such, although Fish acknowledges the value of a “socially responsible” citizenry, he rejects the idea that it is the role of the academy to provide students with the “knowledge and commitments” required (par. 8); it is not the teacher’s job to form character or fashion citizens (par. 11). Furthermore, if these activities are not our job, then we should not engage in them, because we are paid to perform other functions. For Fish, any venture into political, real world issues constitutes at best a distraction from the “pleasures of the classroom” (‘Always Academicize’, par. 9); at worst, indoctrination.
One might argue that Fish’s model does not suggest apolitical teachers, nor does it teach students, by omission, to accept the status quo or to abdicate social responsibility. However, Martin argues that this model “must … be held responsible for ignoring the development of such central aspects of human existence as action, feeling, and emotion” (Martin, 46). More recently, academics such as Peter McLaren and Henry A. Giroux, building on the foundation of Paolo Freire’s socialist pedagogy, have proposed that the ivory tower model of education is an impossible and irresponsible system. Giroux argues, rather, that “schools are immensely important sites for constituting subjectivities, and … we need to make them into models of critical learning, civic courage, and active citizenship” (Critical Pedagogy on the Web: Henry A. Giroux, par. 2). In “Academic Repression in the First Person: The Attack on Higher Education and the Necessity of Critical Pedagogy”, he agrees that the academy must be free to operate democratically, but that the academy has a “civic responsibility” to encourage students “to think about justice and to question ‘the ostensibly unquestionable premises of our way of life'” (par. 2). For Giroux, pedagogy is “a political, moral and critical practice” (par. 3); unlike Atkinson and Fish, Giroux sees no conflict of interest between the “pleasures of the classroom” and the world outside:

Pedagogy at its best is neither training nor political indoctrination; instead, it is about a political and moral practice that provides the knowledge, skills, and social relations that enable students to expand the possibilities of what it means to be critical citizens while using their knowledge and skills to deepen and extend their participation in a substantive and inclusive democracy (par. 3).

Like Peters and Dewey, Giroux is conscious of the responsibility that this pedagogical model imposes on teachers. However, unlike Fish, Giroux does not believe that teachers can leave their politics at the classroom door; while teachers can be “fair,” they cannot be “either neutral or impartial” (par. 5). As such, it is the teacher’s responsibility to be sincerely “self-reflective” and constantly engaged in “both the practice of self-criticism about the values that inform our teaching and a critical self-consciousness regarding what it means to equip students with analytical skills to be self-reflective about the knowledge and values they confront in the classroom” (par.3). Rather than indoctrinating students, teachers equip students with the knowledge and tools to question the political relationships that form their world, and encourage “a healthy skepticism about power” (par. 4). Giroux sees the classroom as a learning space that is not isolated from the outside world, but which provides a “moral and political referent” (par. 6) through which students can see the reflection of curricular content in the outside world:

Rather than shrink from our political responsibility as educators, we should embrace one of pedagogy’s most fundamental goals: to teach students to believe that democracy is desirable and possible. Connecting education to the possibility of a better world is not a prescription for indoctrination; rather it marks the distinction between the academic as a technician and the teacher as a self-reflective educator who is more than the instrument of a safely approved and officially sanctioned worldview (par. 5).

Indeed, in this context, the ivory tower model “becomes an unworldly counterpart to the gated community … this is not education; it is a flight from self and society” (par. 8).
Ultimately, both Fish and Giroux are proposing that teachers “do the job they are trained and paid to do” (Always Academicize, par. 1); where they disagree is on what exactly we are, in fact, trained and paid to do. Fish seems to feel that any pedagogical attempt to “cure the ills of the world” is a betrayal of the institution from which we draw our paychecks. Giroux, on the other hand, believes that what we are trained and paid to do is “to make sure the future points the way to a more socially just world” (par. 4). Regardless of their pedagogical stance, both Fish and Giroux, like their predecessors, accept the supremacy of democracy as a socio-political system (albeit with varying degrees of liberalism). Perhaps Fish and Atkinson are pessimists who see the politically-engaged classroom as a “scene of indoctrination” (“Always Academicize,” par. 5); certainly, there have been instances in educational history that support such pessimism, such as Alberta teacher Jim Keegstra’s denial of the Holocaust, or Fish’s example of the professor at Missouri State University who insisted that students sign a letter in support of adoption rights for gay parents. However, these cases are extreme, and in both the examples provided, the teacher was removed from the classroom, not least because public outcry revealed an abhorrence of indoctrination. The solution to such extremes is not to remove politics from the classroom; rather, the teacher who believes that the role of the educator – and of the institution itself – is to provide students with the tools to become effective, socially-implicated citizens, must be a model, not only of political and moral engagement, but also of self-reflection. In other words, we must demonstrate to our students that we are not residents of the ivory tower; we are citizens of the same world, and we have convictions and values that we are prepared to act upon as well as talk about. It is only through such a pedagogical model that we can hope to redraw the picture revealed by Milner’s study, and help our students change their world.
Works Cited
Atkinson, R. F. “Instruction and Indoctrination”. In R. D. Archambault, Ed., Philosophical Analysis and Education. London: Routledge, 1967.
Beck, Clive M. “The Reflective Approach to Values Education”. In J. F. Soltis, Ed., Philosophy and Education: Eightieth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Critical Pedagogy on the Web. Fall 2002. Retrieved June 1st, 2007, from .
Dewey, John. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: The Free Press, 1916.
Dewey, John. Experience & Education. New York: Touchstone, 1938.
Fish, Stanley. “Always Academicize: My Response to the Responses”. New York Times Online, Nov. 5 2006. Retrieved May 30 2007 from .
Fish, Stanley. “Why We Built the Ivory Tower”. Front Page, June 2004. Retrieved June 8, 2007, from .
Giroux, Henry. “Academic Repression in the First Person: The Attack on Higher Education and the Necessity of Critical Pedagogy”. CUNY Graduate Center Advocate, April 2007. Retrieved May 30, 2007, from .
Howarth, Ian. “This Youth Vote is not For Sale”. The Gazette (Montreal), June 5, 2007, A10.
Martin, Jane Roland. “Needed: A New Paradigm for Liberal Education”. In J. F. Soltis, Ed., Philosophy and Education: Eightieth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Peters, R. S. “Education as Initiation In R. D. Archambault, Ed., Philosophical Analysis and Education. London: Routledge, 1967.

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