20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Philosophy of Education

Paideia, Prejudice and the Promise of the Practical

Padraig Hogan
National University of Ireland–Maynooth

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: In an age of radical pluralism it is increasingly difficult to affirm and sustain the educational aspirations of Greek paideia (Latin humanitas). The most challenging attacks on these aspirations come from standpoints which share a postmodern attitude of opposition towards inherited cultural ideals, especially those which claim universality. This paper first examines optimistic and pessimistic prospects for the educational heritage of humanitas, concluding that, in the face of cultural disparateness which is increasingly evident in post-Enlightenment cultures, the pessimistic case seems to be more convincing. Recognizing that this gives added impetus to postmodernist standpoints, the second section examines some key features of these, taking as its examples arguments of Lyotard, Foucault and Rorty. I show that the prejudices of the postmodernist arguments are as invidious as the discriminatory assumptions and the neglect of the quality of educational practice in the Western cultural inheritance. Recalling some insights which can be gleaned from the educational practices of Socrates, the last section joins these with findings of contemporary philosophers on the pre-judgements and partiality which are inescapable features of human understanding. This is a reclamation and elucidation of a practical and promising humanitas which does justice to the claims of diversity and universality.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

Introduction: Hard Times for Paideia

To many it may seem quaint or quixotic to make the ancient notion of paideia the theme of a world conference of philosophy in cultural circumstances which are variously described as post-industrial, post-Marxist, post-Christian, post-religious, or post-modern. The very notion paidia, or in Cicero's Latin translation, humanitas, suggests that there are ideals of learning which are especially worthy of humankind's convictions and that the pursuit of these ideals is among humankind's most distinctive and defensible undertakings. It presupposes moreover that human beings are distinguished by an intellectual and spiritual nature which is capable, through systematic learning, of becoming incomparably better than what it might otherwise remain or become; a human nature which can be refined, cultivated and perfected through education, so that it becomes more whole, more appreciative of ideals like truth and freedom, more worthy of participation in a civic community and thus more truly human.

But in the face of unprecedented criticisms from standpoints such as those listed above, can the notion of paideia any longer be sustained? Must the presupposition of a humanitas as something universally worthy of the discerning and caring efforts of teachers be abandoned as a fairytale of humankind's protracted childhood? or as a prejudiced creation of privileged white males? Or is there a sense in which this aspiration can only now be understood with a clarity, an inclusiveness and a promise which it lacked throughout its history? I intend to argue a case in support of this latter prospect. Because of limitations of space my argument will deal mainly with the most radical criticisms of the notion of paideia, namely those from post-modern quarters, but what I argue will also seek to take account of criticisms from other sources which allege invidious attitudes and practices in inherited Western conceptions of learning.

Blind Optimism and Forlorn Hopes

The notion of paideia was invoked in a very public way in a 1982 manifesto titled The Paideia Proposal, which expressed bold hopes for reforms in public schooling in the United States. Written by Mortimer J. Adler on behalf of the Paideia Group, it argued against specialisation and the provision of elective courses and advocated "the same course of studies for all:" a common programme for all students throughout the duration of primary and secondary schooling. Three years later, in a lecture called "The Idea of an Educated Public," Alasdair MacIntyre also addressed the theme of educational reform, this time in the context of Western civilisation more generally. But in MacIntyre's case the underlying note was a deeply pessimistic one. "Teachers" he declared, "are the forlorn hope of the culture of Western modernity." The chief reason for MacIntyre's pessimism lies in his claim that the necessary requirements for having the same education for all are now absent. Such requirements for him would include a background of shared attitudes and beliefs, of shared assent to standards of appeal, and a shared understanding of the importance of being articulate and active participants in public affairs.

The optimism of The Paideia Proposal is based firstly on the belief of Adler and his colleagues that "children are all the same in their human nature." Secondly the Proposal presupposes that a common cultural inheritance is available in an unproblematic way to furnish the common programme being advocated. MacIntyre would hardly quarrel with the Paideia Group on the first of its grounds for hope, namely the claim that children are all the same in their human nature. Disagreement rather than agreement on this claim may however be more widespread in the pluralist societies of today's world, and this is a point I will take up in a moment. But it is with the second of the Paideia Group's grounds for hope that MacIntyre's position contrasts sharply, namely the issue of the availability of a common cultural inheritance which could furnish schools with the substance for a common programme. MacIntyre's writings since 1980 provide a comprehensive account of the absence of such a common cultural heritage in what he calls "post-Enlightenment societies." It is clear that MacIntyre himself laments that absence. Indeed one of his main arguments is that the legacy of the Enlightenment, including the rise of the liberal university, contributed to the fragmentation of pre-liberal traditions of learning, and that it was only within the authoritative orderings of such traditions that anything that could properly be called a common curriculum was possible.

On this account the authors of The Paideia Proposal could be criticised for being naively optimistic, for being out of touch with developments which manifest more of the acrimonious than the tolerant face of pluralism. We are confronted here with an apparently intractable disparateness in cultural outlooks in modern pluralist societies. This suggests that when it comes to matters of practice, MacIntyre's pessimism is more compelling than is the optimism of the Paideia Group. We would thus be pushed towards the conclusion that it was now all over for paideia and that obsequies would be more appropriate than any new beginnings. This is the position taken by postmodernist standpoints such as that of Jean François Lyotard, though without the obsequies. Lyotard's critique is perhaps the most overt challenge to the universal aspirations of paideia, so the path towards a reclamation of what that conception might defensibly mean in our own day might best be pursued by considering postmodernist arguments at their strongest. Lyotard's work will therefore be my primary concern here, but with some reference also to works of Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty.

The High Tide of Postmodernism

Despite engaging in practices which were frequently and even systematically discriminatory, traditional conceptions of educating the humanitas of homo humanus characteristically viewed themselves as being inspired by ideals such as the search for truth, the perfection of character, the disclosure of meaning; ideals pursued mainly through the study of canonical texts. The radicalism of Lyotard's approach lies in his definition of the postmodern as an attitude of "incredulity" to such ideals and pursuits, which are dismissed as grand narratives, or "metanarratives." Put simply, a "metanarrative" is a body of beliefs, arguments, claims etc. which presupposes that human existence as such is ultimately purposeful or meaningful. "Metanarratives" are thus what underlie whole cultures and what justify whole traditions. A religion would be a clear example of a "metanarrative." So also would any undertaking inspired by the notion of paideia. On Lyotard's understanding then, the philosophical, religious and educational traditions which featured most prominently in Western civilisation (indeed in most other known civilisations also) would all be regarded as so many tales of self-deception.

Lyotard claims that the incredulity he describes in The Postmodern Condition is a product of scientific progress, and that scientific progress must also presuppose it. That is to say that scientific progress must disbelieve older "metaphysical" ways of understanding the world and that the advances in knowledge which science makes possible contribute in turn to consigning "metanarratives" to obsolescence. He claims further that the task of providing unity and coherence for knowledge as a whole, traditionally played by philosophy in universities (and overseen by the Church in the Middle Ages), is now in crisis, even obsolete. The Postmodern Condition carries the subtitle "A Report on Knowledge" and its analysis purports to show that it is no longer possible to maintain that anything like a coherent cultural heritage is available for those who would see the purposes of education as initiating the young into this heritage. Pursuing his critique of universities, where the ideals of humanitas might be expected to be cherished and defended, Lyotard writes that in the case of the knowledge pursued here:

the goal is no longer truth, but performativity—that is, the best possible input/output equation. The State and/or company must abandon the idealist and humanist narratives of legitimation in order to justify the new goal: in the discourse of today's financial backers of research, the only credible goal is power.

This theme of power as the underlying motive for purposeful human action is also evident in Foucault's writings and it recalls Nietzsche as the precursor par excellence of postmodernist outlooks. In a methodological procedure which owes much to Nietzsche's genealogical approach, Foucault places his primary emphasis not on the merits of ideals like truth, freedom, reason, humanity, but on tracing historically how they function in the practices which regulate human conduct through the "disciplinary institutions" of Western civilisation, particularly from the Renaissance onwards. This primary emphasis on a critique of the how leads Foucault to highlight the part played by divisive practices and techniques of domination, through which "technologies" for governing the self are organised and conducted. In the early pages of his book Discipline and Punish, the philosophical ideal of knowledge as an emancipation is discarded by Foucault in favour of a conception of knowledge as manipulative power. The knowledge yielded by the social sciences is especially seen as knowledge of this manipulative kind. Foucault's analyses imply that techniques of manipulation, exclusion, coercion and surveillance have become so all-pervasive that it is an illusion, or a form of self-deception, to avow anything like the humanitarian and civic ideals associated with paideia.

Where education is concerned, the practices that are most decisive here, in Foucault's view, are those which maintain individuals in subjection, not by a blatant oppression but by subtly turning them into objects of control. Unlike The Paideia Proposal, which gives no attention to practices such as examinations, Foucault sees in examinations the heart of everything which confirms his theory of knowledge as power.

And the examination is the technique by which power, instead of emitting the signs of its potency, instead of imposing its mark on its subjects, holds them in a mechanism of objectification. In this space of domination, disciplinary power manifests its potency, essentially, by arranging objects. The examination is, as it were, the ceremony of this objectification.

Richard Rorty's position, which he himself describes as that of a "postmoderninst bourgeois liberal," and more recently as that of a "liberal ironist," looks at first like a radical re-formation of humanitas, by stripping it of the metaphysical and epistemological accretions of centuries and by stressing anew the importance of an understanding which is active and also personal in one's engagement with the world. In his work Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty avails himself of the German concept Bildung, which he borrows from Gadamer's review of this ideal in the first part of Truth and Method. On Gadamer's account, Bildung can be roughly translated as the self-cultivation which seeks to attain the wholeness of one's humanity and it retains strong connections with the Greek paideia. Where Gadamer develops his argument from Herder's and Hegel's reflections on "the properly human way of developing one's natural talents and capacities" (Bildung zum Menschen), Rorty renames this "edification" and what it signifies now becomes recast as the effort to "remake" or "redescribe" ourselves. "Redescribing ourselves is the most important thing we can do" writes Rorty. In distinguishing this from all concerns of metaphysics and foundational epistemology, Rorty preserves one of the distinctive features of Gadamer's hermeneutics, but then he adroitly discards the heart of the Bildung concept, together with its historical and philosophical resonances which remain crucial for Gadamer. This break with Gadamer is not acknowledged by Rorty, but it quickly becomes evident from his various references to "remaking" and "redescribing." Perhaps the most revealing of these is the following.

The sense in which human beings alter themselves by redescribing themselves is no more metaphysically exciting or mysterious than the sense in which they alter themselves by changing their diet, their sexual partners, or their habitation. It is just the same sense: viz., new and more interesting sentences become true of them.

Redescribing, in Rorty's sense of the word, is the educational task of the "liberal ironist." It is a task which abandons not only metaphysics. More radically, it abandons both the epistemological search for secure foundations (in the sense of seeking "to put all doubts to rest") and the more modest Socratic kind of search for something that might be regarded as a candidate for truth in a universal, though provisional sense. Rorty claims that there is no "noncircular" way of justifying our "final vocabulary" (that for which one ultimately stands) and assumes that "there is no reason to think that Socratic inquiry into the essence of justice or science or rationality will take one much beyond the language games of one's time." He acknowledges that this position offers no "criterion of wrongness" (or of rightness for that matter), and concludes that metaphysicians respond to this by calling the position "relativistic." Rorty's own response to this is that criteria "are never more than the platitudes that contextually define the terms of a final vocabulary currently in use." In short, Rorty's attitude towards anything which seeks a truth that lies beyond the liberal ironist's acknowledged philosophical "rootlessness" carries strong similarities to Lyotard's incredulity towards "metanarratives."

Arguments like those of Lyotard, Foucault and Rorty do not, of course, encompass all standpoints opposed to those conceptions of teaching and learning which embody at least some resonances with paideia. These postmodernist arguments comprise, however, a representative range of the cultural outlooks which have gained currency and influence in the educated circles of Western societies as the twentieth century yields to the twenty-first. Despite their differences moreover, each combines some incisive insights into hegemonic tendencies in Western civilisation with an embrace of one or other variant of the Nietzschean doctrine of personal self-creation. It is this latter feature that I want to focus on now, as it is something which retains an apparent similarity with the task of personal cultivation in paideia, but is in fact its radical renunciation.

Understanding Paideia Anew

The saying of Heraclitus that "the logos is common to all" identifies a keynote of Greek philosophy, namely that humankind shares something in common which makes humankind itself unique in nature, although this is a something which "likes to hide herself" and which may be boundless. In Fragment 45, Heraclitus says: "Travel over every road, you cannot discover the frontiers of the soul, it has so deep a logos." The search for truth of a universal kind, which attracts and yet ultimately eludes humankind's best efforts, became a defining characteristic of Greek learning, notwithstanding the failures to live up to its practical requirements, or to conceive of the universal in terms which did justice to difference and diversity. This defining characteristic, including some of its overlooked shortcomings, has been typically embodied in Western traditions of education which claim their inspiration in paideia, but it is notably dismissed by the anti-metaphysical, and anti-universalist tenor of most postmodernist standpoints. Now I am keen to argue that the practices most appropriate to this search itself are not to be found in any Platonist or other metaphysical legacy of Western learning. Rather they are to be found in the earlier of Plato's Dialogues: those non-metaphysical writings which concentrate on the practices of the historical Socrates and which reveal something which has rarely been acknowledged about Socrates' understanding of the nature of human understanding itself.

Bearing in mind these reflections, I am also keen to highlight three points, however briefly, in this last section of the paper. The first of these concerns the attitude of intellectual modesty and circumspect openness which the Socratic example embodies: a self-critical appreciation that there may be more things on Heaven, earth and elsewhere than are dreamt of in any human philosophy or science. Secondly, I am keen to show that it is the eclipsing of such an attitude that enables postmodernist standpoints like those considered above to become credible in the first place. Thirdly, and drawing on the first two points, I hope to show that a proper acknowledgement of the inherent constraints of human understanding itself makes available to us a conception of education which is not only coherent and promising in a practical sense but also hospitable to the claims of diversity; but a conception which is also a strong candidate for acceptance on universal grounds.

Beginning then with the first point, consider the following extract from Socrates' trial, which summarises the attitude to knowledge which underlay his entire life's work.

[R]eal wisdom is the property of God, and this oracle is his way of telling us that human wisdom has little or no value. It seems to me that he is not referring literally to Socrates, but has merely taken my name as an example, as if he would say to us 'the wisest of you is he who has realised, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless.'

The irony here is not that Socrates considered his own educational actions to be actually worthless, but rather that these actions themselves disclosed to him more and more the virtues which attend an educated sense of one's own ignorance. There is already here a suggestion that human understanding is inherently partial, in both senses of the word (viz. incomplete and biased). Although this is an implicit theme in most of the early Dialogues, its promising implications for how we understand human understanding itself were, for the most part, unfortunately eclipsed rather than fruitfully taken up in more than two millennia of Western philosophy. Metaphysical pretensions to all-inclusive knowledge and epistemological ones to certainty have featured prominently in this history. Where such pretensions became institutionalised moreover, their influences were frequently experienced, in the conduct of teaching and learning as elsewhere, as enforceable requirements for orthodoxy, or uniformity, or conformity.

Turning directly to the second point, it is clear that such institutionalisation is a focal point of Foucault's critiques. Notwithstanding their illuminating emphasis on practices of control, the lack of a self-critical dimension in these critiques allows Foucault's own arguments to engage in all-inclusive categorisations and manipulative classifications — in fact the kind of thing which his analyses have sought to expose. An example of this is Foucault's declaration, which allows for no exceptions, that "power and knowledge directly imply one another." Even more sweeping is his insistence that "there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations." This puts out of consideration in advance, by an assertion which is breathtaking in its sweep, the suggestion that knowledge might chiefly be important as an earnest search for emancipation from oppressive power, albeit a fallible, a faltering and an unfinishing search. Something of this pre-emptive dismissal is also evident in Lyotard's "incredulity" towards "metanarratives" and in Rorty's insistence that "criteria are never more than the platitudes of a final vocabulary currently in use."

And so to the third point. The fertile but largely forgotten suggestion about the inherent partiality of understanding has become a research theme in much of the philosophy of this century, nowhere more so than in the "hermeneutic" writings of figures like Heidegger, Gadamer and Ricoeur. As space doesn't permit a detailed investigation of the developments in this research, I propose to conclude by summarising some of its more important findings in a way which opens up a promising and practical vista for humanitas in circumstances of unprecedented cultural diversity.

(a) Because our human efforts to understand are inescapably constrained by perspective, each of us will always understand incompletely, and in some degree differently.

(b) In each case then, our understanding is constituted by a partiality, in both senses of the word (bias and incompleteness); a partiality which cannot be finally overcome during our lifetimes.

(c) But we needn't be simply at the mercy of this partiality. Our understanding can, through disciplined, co-operative and sustained efforts in any field of study, become more complete, even if it can never become absolute. This is no less true of our understanding of humanitas itself.

(d) On the other hand, the partiality inherent in understanding can quickly become more divisive and intractable (for instance, through overt or unnoticed conceit, partisanship, ethno-centrism, sexism, narcissism, etc.), depending on how our efforts to understand become engaged, sustained and schooled during our lives.

(e) To act in judicious ways on this awareness of the inherent features of understanding itself requires practices which embody the recognition that the humanitas is again threatened with eclipse or disfigurement if it tends to become the preserve of a particular culture to the exclusion of others, be this the culture of a particular religion, party, ethnic grouping, academic tradition, or whatever. The very fact that the list here could be endless means that the humanitas remains open to potentially endless sources of inspiration.

(f) To realise the best in ourselves as human learners is therefore to appreciate that we are a dialogue; a dialogue whose possibilities can be taken up ever anew, or on the other hand, declined, or bypassed, or indeed renounced. But this also means that dialogue is itself an alert, self-critical and demanding discipline where the practices of teaching and learning are concerned.

(g) A common programme of studies is important then only to the point that it is necessary to nurture the fluencies which are essential in a mass communication era. Where practices of teaching are concerned, the humanitas is to be found in the how, just as much as in the what. This implies a curriculum which enable pupils and students to discover through their studies the strengths and the limitations that are unique to each of them. It is to treat the issue of personal identity more as a matter of epiphany than of imposition, of disclosure than of conformity.

(h) This also involves building an éthos, where a commitment to learning goes hand in hand with a sense of belonging to a community; one which undoubtedly has its own local flavour, yet where differences and tensions are not only acknowledged, but also explored in such a way that they enlarge the context of what is taught and learned, enrich an appreciation of diversity and progressively discipline the preconceptions that underlie the exercise of all judgement.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


(1) Major works on education such as Plato's Republic, parts of his Laws, parts of Aristotle's' Ethis and Politics give crucial insights into what Paideia meant for the Greeks. A detailed exploration of this significance is the project undertaken in Werner Jaeger's three volume work Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture, translated by G. Highet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1944). Another illuminating work on the ideals of paideia is H. I. Marrou's A History of Education in Antiquity, translated by G. Lamb (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956).

(2) The Paideia Group —a body of twenty-two people (scholars, educators, critics, administrators) who were concerned that standards of basic education in the United States had serious inadequacies, and who were resolved to put forward a wide-scale remedy.

(3) "The Idea of an Educated Public" (henceforth IEP) in Education and Values—The Richard Peters Lectures edited by Graham Haydon. London: University of London Institute of Education, 1987.

(4) IEP, pp.18-19.

(5) The three chief features of the common curriculum identified by the Paideia Proposal are: (a) acquisition of organised knowledge, comprising three main divisions: literature & fine arts; mathematics & natural science; history, geography & social studies—to be achieved mainly through didactic instruction; (b) development of intellectual skills, comprising: reading, writing, speaking, listening, calculating, problem-solving, observing, measuring, estimating, exercising critical judgement—to be achieved mainly through coaching;(c) enlarged understanding of ideas and values, to be achieved by discussion of works of art, including books and by involvement in artistic activities like music, drama, visual arts—to be learned mainly through discussion. The Paideia Proposal, p.23 ff.

(6) On this issue, MacIntyre has affirmed in many of his later writings his belief in a teleological conception of human nature, inspired first by Aristotle, but then also by Augustine and Aquinas. See chapters 9 and 11 of After Virtue (London: Duckworth, second edition 1985) and pp.10, 178 of Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (London: Duckworth 1988).

(7) IEP p.17; Whose Justice? Which Rationality? p.399.

(8) A few brief examples will serve to illustrate this point, bearing in mind the three features of The Paideia Proposal paraphrased in note no.5 above. Under the first of these, (a), the contents suggested here and the exclusively didactic means envisaged call to mind a traditional-custodial picture of schooling which fails to take account of differences in aptitude and self-understanding—differences which show themselves as fundamental ones, particularly in the later stages of secondary schooling. Under (b), skills of craft, of design and making, of technological innovation, find no place in the common curriculum, either in the primary or secondary school. Under (c) the Proposal takes no account of the fact that hostilities frequently become intense when it comes to deciding what works of art, or whose literary works, are to be included or excluded in the "same course of study for all." Given that the career of Adler himself was much associated with "great books" of the Western canon, the inclusion of works from perspectives outside of this canon becomes a crucial issue, but one not referred to by the Paideia Group.

(9) "The humanitas of homo humanum" is a phrase used by Martin Heidegger in his "Letter on Humanism" to distinguish humanitas from metaphysical conceptions of humanism based on animal rationale: "Above and beyond everything else, however, it remains to be asked whether the essence of man primordially and most decisively lies in the dimension of animalitas at all." "Letter on Humanism" translated by F.A.Capuzzi with J.Glenn Gray, in Martin Heidegger—Basic Writings, edited with Introduction by David Farrell Krell (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977), pp.202-203.

(10) Jean François Lyotard The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (henceforth TPC) translated by G. Bennington & B. Massumi, with Foreword by F. Jameson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986) p.xxiv. Lyotard's "Report" is much more than merely a dispassionate analysis of postmodern tendencies, It is also an advocacy of a particular standpoint and this is why I have describe his position as postmodernist. I have treated this issue more fully in The Custody and Courtship of Experience—Western Education in Philosophical Perspective (Dublin: The Columba Press, 1995) pp.111-113.

(11) TPC, p.xxiv.

(12) TPC, p.46.

(13) Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish—The Birth of the Prison (henceforth D&P), translated by A.Sheridan (London: Allen Lane, 1977), pp.27-28.

(14) D&P, p.184.

(15) Richard Rorty, "Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism" in R. Hollinger (ed.) Hermeneutics and Praxis (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1985).

(16) Richard Rorty, "Private Irony and Liberal Hope" in his Contingency, irony, and solidarity (henceforth CIS) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

(17) Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (henceforth PMN) (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980) pp.357-365.

(18) Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (T&M) translation of Wahrheit und Methode (W&M) by G. Barden & J. Cumming (New York: Seabury Press, 1975).

(19) T&M, pp.10-11; W&M, pp.6-7.

(20) PMN pp.358-359.

(21) PMN p.351.

(22) CIS, p.73.

(23) CIS, pp.74-75.

(24) Heraclitus, Fragment 45, quoted by Jaeger in Paideia, Bk.1, p.179.

(25) These earlier Dialogues include Gorgias, Protagoras, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Bk.1 of Republic.

(26) Plato, Apology, 23.

(27) D&P, p.27.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage