Philosophy and Education: From Elitism to Democracy
From its first appearance in western culture, philosophy has been considered able to build up reality, to educate men and to disclose truth. Plato proposed philosophers as governors and a lifelong philosophical paideia; nevertheless, yet before him, philopophy and kalokagaqia were in a close relation, as Parmenides and Heraclitus show. Particularly Socrates is the ideal paradigm of an educating philosopher: he tried to wake up human minds, so that they could be aware of themselves and of the world, criticizing tradition and prejudices in a logically consistent perspective. A critical and dialogic approachnot by a mere chance defined "Socratic"to problems has been considered until now the most profitable method of teaching. Socrates is a pioneer in discussing the question of a philosophical paideia, as he defined his method "maieutic." He was not an authoritarian teacher, but a spurring partner in the process of self-education. Moreover, he considered himself as the most learned and, at the same time, the wisest in Greece, just because he was conscious of his ignorance. Therefore, he understood, for the first time in our cultural tradition, that knowledge is an endless process rather than a product, within marked bounds. In conclusion,docta ignorantia has the following bases:
i) the disposition to investigate;
ii) the astonishment in front of the world and the unknown;
iii) the consciousness that knowledge is not only a whole of notions (though always open), but also and meanly a qualitative process of inter-relations and interactions between knowing subject and known object.
In the history of educational theories, these Socratic ideas have been persisting over the centuries, in spite of ideological differences of various thinkers. From this point of view, education was for Socrates and is still for us synonymous of an endless process of "learning to learn." And "learning to learn" means
In our century, for instance in Deweyan thought, philosophy has been charged with social and political tasks. It yet implies a forma mentis, peculiar of the process of individual education. Moreover, philosophy is also considered as an instrument of human freedom and social reconstruction. The present time stresses culture, civilization, wisdom as password, because individuals and society are in an evident dialectical relation and transaction. And democracy could be, in my opinion, synonymous of this dialectical relation and of a social philosophical consciousness.
The process of "knowing" and "investigating," on one hand, and a planning (Dewey) or open (Popper) society, on the other, are an inextricable whole and are opposed to sclerotic and stereotyped knowledge and to a planned society, which is, by its nature, averse from change. Our century dictatorships are the historical examples of this statement.
Many philosophers share this theoretical point. However, some differences could be found in various historical contexts. Philosophy and utopia can be often connected in this, merely theoretical, perspective, as far as utopia can be considered (Baczko) as a methodological approach to historical reality and only an ethical ideal. Sometimes Platonic ideal (hope or illusion) of a philosopher as a governor was translated into practice. The corruption of the ideal and the utopian office of philosophical method was the consequence of the traslation, as three particular instances show.
1. The French "Philosophes" in the XVIIIth century considered theoretically necessary to join their forces to governors; sometimes, they entered into an actual alliance with kings, hoping that philosophy could emancipate the despotic power from brutality and immorality. This philosophical, ethical, and political perspective partially led to French Revolution, but the alliance between kings and philosophes was not good for Enlightenment Philosophy, which was alternating agreement and support to status quo and a radically reformist proposals.
2. Humboldt, 1809-1810, elaborated a project of Prussian school system reform and, particularly planned the contemporary western university structure: he described a learned man, who, thanks to his cultural and intellectual loneliness, is destined for social, cultural, ethical and political leadership. Not accidentally, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche severely criticized this kind of university, which is platonically erected on the "Bestimmung des Gelehrten," but actually built up referendaries and civil servant.
3. Giovanni Gentile was minister of Education in the first Mussolini Government (1922); planned Italian school system reform (1923); wrote up Fascist intellectuals manifesto (1925); supervised many Italian Publishers till his death (in 1944, when he was killed by an Italian Partisan Commando); started the "Enciclopedia italiana"; was the director of the Scuola normale superiore in Pisa; taught Philosophy at the university and, finally, in 1943 joined Mussolini's Social Repubblic at Salò. Summing up, he was the official philosopher of the Fascism, during all the lenghth of the Regime, even if he alternated Hegelian theory of the Sittlichkeit of the State (which can justify dictatorship) and his "Platonic" ambition to the freedom of culture and intellectual work.
These instances, in spite of their chronological and peculiar differences, show a knot of ethic, philosophy, education and politics: Gentile, e.g., explicitly identifies education and philosophy in the process of development of the Spirit. Moreover, they persist in considering philosophical activity as an instrument of freedom and liberation for learned men and for a privileged minority: in the field of politics, according to French Philosophes; in the field of culture, according to Humboldt; in the field of ethics, according to Gentile. This is a matter of principle. But, actually all these philosophers follow and justify the Power. We can say simplifying that the practice of a philosopher as a "servant" of the government has replaced Plato's ideal of a philosopher as a governor. However, it becomes apparent that, whenever the combination philosophy-education is in the service of a government, educational qualities of philosophyi.e., the method of critical investigation waver and pass away. The cooperation with governments requires conventionality rather than a critical mind and discussing attitude. From this point of view, investigation and astonishment cannot but die.
Education itself is double-faced: on one side, it is the result of a historical and social context; on the other, it is a factor (but not the only one) of cultural and, sometimes, even social and political change, according to a dialectical relation between preservation and innovation. Philosophy itself,in my opinion, is or should be harmonious particularly with the innovating aspect of education.
As far as its method proclaims the spirit of utopia, of an endless intellectual adventure, philosophy defends men from the danger of a life without questions, within the boundaries of hic et nunc; it awakes men from their "dogmatic sleep" and, therefore, leads them to put into discussion their historical conditions. Philosophy, then, is not synonimous of education; but education cannot be without philosophy. At the present, however, philosophy is not an instrument of ethical and intellectual elitarian education (Plato docet), but, on the contrary, an intellectual disposition, a methodological approach to the world. Therefore, all men, without any racial, economic, religious and social discrimination, should be allowed to apply this method to their own individual and social life.
It would be, then, advisable (and perhaps necessary) to include also "philosophy" in the curriculum for school teachers training, obviously together with cultural and psycho-pedagogical subjects-matters. So, learning philosophy, they would acquire the mental habit of an endless investigation, of dialogue, of doubting and would connect this habit to their practice for the advantage of their pupils, who will be the citizens of tomorrow. Our hypothesis is that Descartes' dubito/cogito is nowadays more alive than in the past, because our dynamic world presents ever-changing events. Such a world cancels the illusion of an absolute reality, which removes all contradictions and conciliates all differences. A dynamic reality admits dualism: subject-object; body-mind; natural-social; particular-universal; man-nature; freedom-authority are the peculiarities of present dynamism and pluralism. These distinctions can be solved only in a dialectical perspective, which takes into account the pluralistic approach to reality itself. Then, men are compelled to face a complex: the metaphor of a "labyrinth" rather than the metaphor of a "reticulate" can express this kind of complexity. In this "labyrinth" individuals ought to take their full responsibilities, as the "labyrinth" indicates human history and depends on human political choices.
Therefore, philosophy must not be taught and learnt as a mere chronological inventory of ideas, but as a dialogic method to compare ideas, events and spechees. Only in this perspective, as above stated, philosophy can and may reach its educational purpose and can be connected to human paideia. In conclusion, philosophy may help us:
a) to understand the relations among past, present and future in a human meaningful perspective;
b) to acquire a dialogic habit, i.e. an instrument of social, ethical, religious and etnical tolerance and, therefore, of peace;
c) to analyze critically everyday speech and specialistic languages (i.e., political, scientific, educational, mass-media languages), for the crical analysis discloses and reduces the potential tyranny of the words;
d) to be relativists, but not as human beings indifferent to human questions;
e) to find our own way in the "labyrinth" of knowing and socio-political co-construction.
So conceived, philosophy can follow human education and self-education, leading to democracy. Democracy, in fact, can be defined a particular style of life, in which individuals as Dewey taught us are in a close and reciprocal relational and become step by step consciously responsible of social life, as far as they are able to give to this life a meaning, an orientation and, finally, some rules. Philosophy as regina scientiarum is an ancient conception; nowadays it is a method and a regulative Idee. In the past times, philosophy claimed the right and the privilege to build up learned men, destined for the government, whose autonomy justified others' eteronomy; in the present, philosophy aims at the education of free men. All (and not only a privileged minority) ought to be free, because free means self-governing.
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