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Philosophy of Education

Toward a Complete Axiology of Classroom Practice

Marshall Gordon

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Kant's argument that autonomy is the basis of human dignity complements the experiential truth that students have the ultimate agency with regard to their learning. Students must see themselves as objects with workable content objectively subject to evaluation — "objects being events-with-meanings" (Dewey), that can be more appreciated personally, socially, and intellectually. To do so sustains and broadens the conditions in which paideia can flourish for its own sake as well as for human ends.

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In this propitious time in US education when the disciplines that speak in universal languages are making explicit their significance to human society and culture as well their educational credo and pedagogical means as to how best present themselves (the Standards in mathematics, and Benchmarks in science), it seems fitting to consider the need for a common vocabulary to transcend the content divisions so as to promote students' self-conscious practice of securing life-enriching qualities associated with being thoughtful able human beings. This would seem an essential element of classroom practice if the young were to be enabled to develop themselves.

That characteristic values change with one's aims or philosophy need not deter us, for we could make efforts to select some set of dispositions to serve as common essential elements for the educational experience (cf. Frankena, 1970), or we could also argue as long as any habit, attitude, ability, or trait had value in thinking and acting so as to enrich human experience it would be worth considering as part of the young's education to some extent (e.g., Dewey's developing students' habits of thinking, and Greene's dealing with the social complexity of personal freedom, cf. 1988). In either case, what is clear is that were the prescribed goals of student behavior to bear little if any relation to what they themselves would have chosen and acted to secure had they the chance, there is little if any reason to believe the axiological dimension of the classroom experience would be rightfully called fully considered. And without the student's acceptance, social efficiency and personal culture are at odds not "synonyms" (Dewey, 1966, p. 123). As a consequence, classroom practice unresponsive to students' evolving sense of their ideal educated selves leaves them the task of determining their worth in an environment insensitive to that very concern; and the direct and indirect effects of that alienation can be thought of as humanity's loss, both in terms of resources and sense of self.

Kant's argument that autonomy is the basis of human dignity would seem to locate where we should begin as it provides a logical imperative to secure a framework wherein students can choose and pursue the goals of thought and action they would want to have as part of their personal/formal education. That students would have input as to the attitudinal and behavioral goals of their education would seem required by any ethical standard given to responsible decision making. So although it is of course reasonable to associate naivete with the facticity of being a student, nonetheless " . . . the principal agent in education, the primary dynamic factor or propelling force, is the internal vital principle in the one to be educated" (Maritain, p. 31). And it would hopefully be tautological that students would have some awareness of those dispositions associated with learning they wish to develop or transform more completely in and for themselves with regard to their education.

Students as human beings wish to find themselves valued and valuing members of the collaborative learning experience; and actually choosing some trait(s), behavior(s), or disposition(s) to introduce or work to eliminate with regard to each of their studies toward having a more aesthetic (life-enriching) learning experience would be a theoretical way to make this happen. In its practice it would provide further evidence of Vico's belief that "knowledge of oneself is for everyone the greatest incentive to acquire the universe of learning in the shortest time" (1993, pp. 37-8), which seems to have been downgraded to a humbler awareness and a lesser aspiration in contemporary educational times: now virtue appears in the effort to "cover the curriculum," while the reflective focused energy needed for the development of a more human being has tended to become in large part distinct from the curriculum effort. This unhealthy bifurcation is evident in manifold expression, including the present-day school realizations that "it is essential to stress both academics and discipline" and that "academics have been sacrificed for self-esteem"—as if thought, will, and discipline weren't intrinsically connected. To insure the connection, each student and teacher would come to agreement as what habits, qualities, and associated practices would be personally, socially, and intellectually worth pursuing given their circumstances; and this would serve rightfully to establish student developmental aims as the fundamental energy of the learning experience.

Aesthetic Behavior

Toward assisting students in their decision-making, reconsideration of what is "aesthetic" is requisite. It provides the spectrum within which the ontological bases of human relations, namely individual integrity and social cohesion, and their dialectical unity, have affirmative value in setting limits and suggesting transcendence of those limits. That it would be a construct wherein life-enriching decisions can be more readily made and productively acted upon in the classroom provides its raison d'etre.

Being able to think, perceive, and act aesthetically, we basically feel good about ourselves, our experience, and those with whom we share it, for we understand instinctively and cognitively that the energy being created is one that improves and enriches everyone. And if the educational experience is to be considered aesthetic, then there must be commitment shared by all those involved toward all becoming more thoughtful, aware and capable human beings. Socrates noted, "The nearest way to glory—a short cut, as it were—is to strive to be what you wish to be thought to be" (Cicero quoting Socrates in Vico, p. 90). While both held a different dialectical approach as to how it was to be sought, it would be fair to say that Vico and Socrates would agree not only on that knowing one self formed the ground of one's education, but also that which legitimates the learning experience is the integrity the participants bring to it—where the integrity is the dedicated energy expressed in multi-faceted ways. With this perspective that intrinsically values social context, aesthetic judgement is critical to one's being truly educated, for as living art works students come to see themselves as objects with workable content objectively subject to evaluation—"objects being events-with-meanings" (Dewey, 1961, p. 263)—that can be more appreciated personally, socially, and intellectually. This orientation would necessarily redefine the curriculum so as to include looking at one's practice, considering its aesthetic and less so aspects, and deciding as part of the daily work what would be best to be done to secure the shared goal of becoming more realistically valued and self-appreciated human beings.

Evaluating the educational experience in terms of the categories of individual integrity and social cohesion from an aesthetic perspective makes this life-affirming development possible. We naturally make an effort toward building individual integrity and social cohesion in education by instinctive inclination, and through long-established habits built by social training. After all, it is simply the way we normally behave on a daily basis among those we care about and whose feelings and interests we respect. For instance, in a conversation, people will offer their own independent constructive viewpoint; they talk to instead of around or over each other, and trust each other to provide and listen to something worthwhile. Fully apparent in daily living, these qualities of normative communication can be seen not only as facilitators but subject matter for communication. Indeed, regardless of course title, style of classroom practice, or age of students, the educator can develop the students' aesthetic of individual integrity and social cohesion as the fundamental motive in and for the process of learning.

For instance, a student could focus on some aspect(s) of learning and appreciating a particular discipline which gives it its individual integrity and consider working to be more adept at one or some of those qualities; or a student may decide to try to determine what if any common elements exist between apparently distinct cultures or disciplines, or entities within each, as manifestation of their social cohesion. The interactive nature of the classroom reality would also suggest that the teacher share those elements of individual integrity and social cohesion particular to their vantage point, both as a human being and from drawing upon the special nature of the discipline's place in the social mosaic. Indeed it would seem teachers have an obligation to make explicit their values (cf. Macdonald, 1977), for while they are present and affect certain aspects of the experience rather completely, they are not always evident, and thus educators unknowingly act in a confusing and at times unaesthetic (life-diminishing) manner. Inasmuch as individual integrity and social cohesion and their inherent value orientation can be seen to be intrinsic to every facet of the learning experience, drawing upon each as well their dialectical unity could enrich the experience personally, socially, and intellectually for all involved.

Yet, capable of locating multiple paths to a coherent educative experience, neither individual integrity nor social cohesion are necessarily life-enriching or life-affirming unto themselves. Either may be used to create an unaesthetic situation: as in the muting of thoughtful response to establish a group's cohesion, or in the alienating extent to which one (individual, group, institution) believed it had to go to establish individual integrity. In general, the presence or absence to an excessive degree of any quality associated with being human would tend to locate the unaesthetic spectrum. For instance, associated with excessive individual integrity in a classroom setting we could find too much challenge or competitiveness, rebellion or riskiness, commitment, or coverage; whereas an unaesthetic level of social cohesion could manifest as too much assistance, too broad a coverage, too narrow a focus, or too little opportunity for individual exploration. That either or both categories could be seen as being aesthetic or unaesthetic is to locate a concern for the educational experience, as often there is the tendency to see integrity and cohesion only as positive. As problematic, some may also believe that with the presence of one of these aesthetic "opposites" the other is necessarily diminished; e.g., the on-going struggle within the NAACP to decide whether to pursue integrated—socially cohesive, or segregated—manifesting individual integrity—schools; and Dewey notes (1966, 44) that "[t]here is always a danger that increased personal independence will decrease the social capacity of an individual". But there can well be comprehensive development. Consider for example how some student(s) may develop a rich interpretation of some material distinct and independent from their teacher, and yet at the same time also become more capable of intellectual interaction. Or some student(s) may demonstrate special qualities of insight relative to the rest of the class and use them to assist others in their more complicated engagement. Yet too, there are times when it is fine to emphasize one to the exclusion of the other: we can see this in the classroom energy and focus given to independent centers of inquiry for a considerable period of time, which could then in effect coalesce into an opposite wherein everyone would be focused on a unifying conversation.

Forming the axiological basis of realistic human development, together they suggest a framework to focus classroom practice so that the intentions and efforts of all of the participants are more clearly the result of an aesthetic awareness. And in their negative space they have educational value as well; e.g., to help instantiate Hegel's claim that "pedagogy is the art of making men ethical" (Friedrich, 1954, p. 267), providing students richer perspective for gaining understanding with regard to cheating on tests to get good grades or to avoid having one's research proven flawed. More generally, and from an aesthetic perspective, individual integrity is essential to the human invention that comes only with individual, group, and institutional self-reliance and self-expression. At the same time we will always need social cohesion, for this affords us all a secure and respected place in the community that supports us and our values, and lets us each act ultimately to the benefit of the rest of us.

Toward A Developmental Aesthetic

It is the individual's sustaining energy and effort to focus that makes learning possible, with all the attendant contrasting qualities and demands of consciousness, none of which tend to be manifestly valued objects in school. For a more self-reflective awareness, should not the young be assisted in learning how to think about their energies? Their own freedom and control? To make a dedicated effort not encumbered by stress and despair? This is not to suggest that every class cannot end with an existentially-dangling pupil, or the individual's curriculum be full of analytic descriptors, nor require an ego psychology primer. For purely within paideia itself—indeed, recall the historical roots of pedagogy—can a student be invited to a reflection upon that process of making sense of things, engaging ideas and experience—enriching life, theirs and ours. And in their growing repertoire of positive dispositions, including the realization that ". . . concrete habits are the means of knowledge and thought" (Dewey, 1922, p.176), students could come to better control their passions and lassitudes, be more temperate, more willing to take risks, so enlivening the learning environment in a constructive manner, sharing an effort after those qualities associated with the time-honored goals of self-discipline and respect for limits, and the invitation to test them.

In this direction, should not all qualities of intellectual engagement be given their due across the curricular spectrum? For instance, is intuition a valuable aid in developing thought? Surely a number of well-respected philosophers claim it is the logical precedent to the formulation of an idea. Ought an effort be made to explicitly develop such an awareness with regard to each of the disciplines? Do not all disciplines value courage, resilience, and play? In this regard should there be discussion of the dialectic—the process of finding some ambiguity, absurdity, or accepted form of contradiction that promotes a transcendent clarity? This is to suggest that each of the disciplines consider those qualities and processes peculiar to their own development that allow and liberate human being to think and act well, for they would seem to be integral to the figure in the ground of the day's school knowledge.

However, even with the student focused on gaining greater ability, the realization is needed that it is not enough to choose some goal, for without specific means toward its establishment it remains a hope and only that. "The true function of the conditions that call forth effort is, then, first, to make an individual more conscious of the end and purpose of his actions; secondly, to turn his energy from blind, or thoughtless, struggle into reflective judgment" (Dewey, italics in original, 1975, p. 53). As an instance, suppose in response to the teacher's discussion of those qualities associated with being a good student of history, a student expresses the desire to become "more patient when reading". Surely that teacher as well the rest of us would appreciate such a qualitative development. And conversation regarding practices and conditions given to developing their individual integrity, such as "not rushing", "taking (more) notes while reading", and "writing (paragraph, chapter, section) summaries", would serve the school's (i.e., society's) as well as the student's (personal) curriculum, and thus help awaken the student to written knowledge as a socially cohesive connection of minds. Or in the same vein, a student could seek to be more empathetic (as an element of social cohesion) and write a paper from the viewpoint of some individual or group whose position he/she initially rejected, but because of the experience comes to see the problematic nature of the position held prior, and so develops further her/his individual integrity. Being and doing so, the implications after awhile could be personally, socially, and intellectually interesting, if not profound.

Yet this educational experience is bound to weigh heavily on the participants from time to time, inasmuch as student reflections could result in feelings of inadequacy and a negation of self and experience, and those in charge of structuring the experience would need to make more complex decisions as to what constitutes the curriculum and classroom practice. Indeed, this more comprehensive view of what it means to be educated would involve further effort and understanding, resilience and reunification. As Nietzsche noted, "One thing is needful.—To 'give style' to one's character—a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed—both times through long practice and daily work at it" (italics in original, p. 232). And although students and teachers could find looking at themselves and their behavior through this lens as initially somewhat uncomfortable it is the same as any practice, as in learning a dance—eventually the awkwardness melts away so that the dancer and the dance are one, and the integrity of the dancer is all the more enhanced for being coherent with the dance.

The object of this educational perspective is to provide a means by which students can more readily create themselves in an image we would all respect, and in effect sustain and broaden the personal, social, and intellectual conditions in which paideia can flourish for its own sake and to aesthetically human ends. Granted, such an explicit practice may not appear to have the intensity one could imagine present in a heated dialogue with Socrates or in the internal dialogue filling Vico's book-strewn room. Nonetheless it provides the framework for an education wherein the young can see themselves as transformative agents for themselves and other people, increasingly able in their life-long educative experience to create both themselves and their future in a manner representing the growing realization of civilized life.

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Dewey, J. Democracy and education. New York: The Free Press, 1966.

_______. Experience and nature. Lasalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1961.

_______. Human nature and conduct. New York: Carlton House, 1922.

_______. Interest and effort in education. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975.

Frankena, W. K. "Educational values and goals: some dispositions to be fostered". In Theories of value and problems of education, P. G. Smith (ed.). Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1970.

Friedrich, C. J. (ed.). The philosophy of Hegel. New York: The Modern Library, 1954.

Greene, M. The dialectic of freedom. New York: Teachers College Press, 1988.

Macdonald, J. B. "Values bases and issues for curriculum". In Curriculum Theory, A. Molnar and J. A. Zaharik (eds.). Washington, D.C.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1977.

Maritain, J. The education of man. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967.

Nietzsche, F. The gay science. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.

Vico, G. On humanistic education. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

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