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Philosophy of Education

Paideia and Modern Educational Policy: The Conflict of Intent and Authority

Randall Olson
Placer Union High School District, Auburn, California

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ABSTRACT: The lofty ideals of the classical notion of paideia, and the restatement of those principles in 1982 by Mortimer Adler and the 'paideia group' remain an unfulfilled promise in terms of the actualities of public education in the United States. The notion of an educational system for all students built upon a rigorous curriculum manifesting a framework of values to be acted out in the public and democratic forum continues to have great attraction for educators. Indeed, the notion of paideia continues to carry a sense of urgency as it should. However, the actual task of creating systems devoted to these ideals has run headlong into a political labyrinth generated by the conflict between conservative (technical/authoritative) political thought and liberal (teaching/learning theory) application. The political seductiveness of the trend towards 'standardization' currently in vogue throughout the United States (both locally and nationally) works counter to the classroom-centered/teacher-student encounter needed to educate students capable of interacting meaningfully in their social and political world. The use of the 'standard' to teach and to measure students carries the authority of the technical and reinforces the stereotype of intellectual elitism. To bring balance to this conflict and create an apolitical design requires attention to the meditative role of the teacher and the nature of learning.

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There was a fundamental tension embedded in the earliest appropriation of the Greek paideia by early Christianity which continues to be acted out upon the political/ educational stage today. That tension is between valuing knowledge (text) considered as object as opposed to valuing understanding considered as action in community. In the contemporary American educational theater, that tension is evidenced in the increasing calls for standardized testing of students—testing itself seen as the good which will "fix" a broken educational system. The passion for testing (oftentimes observed as soundbites serving political ends ) runs counter to a farmboy's common knowledge that you don't put weight on a hog by weighing it. This paper will attempt a dialectic exploring the models generating this tension and suggesting an alternative view of a modern paideia.

That original tension is illustrated in the Greek paideia, which not only contemplated the process of development of the human subject toward the good, but also venerated the influence of the object of learning; i.e., first the poetry of Homer, then the literature of Greece, then the total fine arts of the Greek culture. "If we regard education as a process of shaping or forming, the object of learning plays the part of the mold by which the subject is shaped. The formative mold of early Greek paideia was Homer, and as time went on that role was expanded to Greek poetry at large. In the end, the word paideia meant Greek literature as a whole." (Jaeger 1961:91).

Early Christians, hellenized and conversant in the use and didactic angularities of the Greek marketplace of education and dialogue, adopted the definition and implementation of paideia. As with Plato, Gregory of Nyssa, a pivotal figure in the early church, adopted as given that all human will and effort by nature was directed to achieve "the good." Evil, therefore, was ignorance a priori. Literature was the formative essence of this evolution to the good—not only in the culture of Greece, but in the earliest texts of the Christian Church.

However, what Gregory and early Christian teachers adopted from Plato was not the singular veneration of the "object" (in the early church Christ himself, then in his absence the writings about Christ, or text). The paideia of the early Christian church was the morphosis of Christ and the study of the Bible. In the Book of Acts, the apostle Philip said, "I have come to Athens in order to reveal to you the paideia of Christ." Gregory writes, "...the prophet Isaiah educates us..." and "...the apostle educates us..." What this early force in the evolution of Greco-Christian thought illustrates is the formative function of the object—in this case what is written. This becomes the "...paideutic interpretation of the authority." (Jaeger 1961:93). The intent, I would venture, is the construct of the paedeic not as law, but as education in that the text has a formative and ultimately transformational function. What Gregory emphasizes is the formative nature of education, the gradual growth of the human personality and its spiritual nature. The emphasis of care, the concept of morphosis, speaks of a concept of education which recognizes it not as a development driven by law, or as spontaneous in nature, but rather a process characterized by embeddedness in tradition, language and ethics, and as a mediative process. There is a distinction between the crude, anthropomorphism of the depiction of God in the Old Testament and the concept of grace and the intervening physician (Christ) of the New Testament. We later witness a dramatic shift to authority and law in the advent of the Roman Empire, and just as this situates the duality and sometimes conflict of law and gospel in the Roman Christianity, so does it foreshadow our modern educational policy tension between intent and authority. (What will also be characterized as the tension between instrumental/technical and process/mediated learning.)

In his text, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia, Jaeger discusses the issue of the parallel established by Gregory and other early writers of Christian education to the highest level of Greek paideia—the study of philosophy. Gregory of Nyssa presented the Bible as levels of formative interaction. The first level is the direct literal, historical text—the law; the second level advances to the spiritual, and most significant—the text as a unity—the Holy Spirit itself. For Gregory the Bible was not ultimately law, but education—the paideutic interpretation of authority was therefore a formative act, engaging the reader in the text as unity—a historical, transformational, unifying act.

With this brief summary of an initial tension between text(authority) and intent(transformation), let us fast forward to modern public education in the United States and 1982 and the Paideia Proposal, by Mortimer Adler and group. The group stated, "The ultimate goal of the educational process is to help human beings become educated persons. Schooling is the preparatory stage; it forms the habit of learning and provides the means for continuing to learn after all schooling is completed." (Adler :10). In further defining their proposal, the group identified three modes of learning which help us, for the purposes of this paper, identify the continuing issue. Their identified modes of learning are: 1) the acquisition of knowledge in language, literature, fine arts, and in natural science, history, geography, and the study of social institutions; 2) the development of intellectual skills, and 3), the enhancement of the understanding of basic idea and values. (Adler:16). What I suggest, without an exegesis of the Proposal, is that this modern model continues the tension between the veneration of the "what", or text (mode 1) and the focus on the "why", transformation (mode 3). This tension is illustrated by the emphasis by policy makers on the "what" (standardized exams), as opposed to the evaluation of educational formation by the "why" (authentic acts).

The Paideia Proposal was followed hard and fast, and with much greater publicity and policy influence, by A Nation at Risk, published in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The conclusion of this widely-quoted (if not read) text was that the nation's public schools were failing by not turning out an educated work force who could compete in the global economy. The political/social policy decisions based upon not only A Nation at Risk, but the dozens of follow-up reports and studies (fourteen major national commissions published findings concerning public education between 1983 and 1988), all recommended the return to the paradigm of authority (mode 1, law). That paradigm may be characterized as the Cartesian view of the world as made better by depending on the rational process itself. I would suggest that these studies, and the dozens of educational policies enacted since 1983 are driven by this image of the workplace, and the United State's role, via the employed worker, in that workplace. I would further suggest that the tension between text and transformation has been broken by a political appropriation of the paradigm of scientific method, which is not a mere instrument serving the sciences; rather, it presses the sciences into its own service. The method relies on the elementary level (law) of not only the earliest paideia, but the Paideia Proposal of 1982. (the text as the law and mode one, knowledge, as the end in itself).

"In the sciences, not only is the theme drafted, called up by the method, it is also set up within the method and remains within the frame-work of the method, subordinated to it. The furious pace at which the sciences are swept along today—they themselves don't know whither—comes from the speed-up drive of method with all its potentialities, a speed-up that is more and more left to the mercy of technology. Method holds all the coercive power of knowledge. The theme is a part of the method." (Heidegger 1971:74)

In regard to the public education of young people, thirty-two states and thirty-four large urban school districts have instituted results-based school accountability systems as of this year (1998). ("Results-based" typically means the scores of normed, standardized exams such as the SAT 9, the STAR, and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills). The use of these examinations are justified by an appeal to "high standards." However, the tests themselves anchor their authority on method—reliability and validity. The policy makers purport to elevate system performance and therefore student performance as recorded through test scores—the record of instrumental methodology. In keeping with the paradigm, some twenty-two states have passed "academic bankruptcy" laws, which call for or require state intervention when schools "fail" the tests. When intervention occurs, it is so complex, and so costly, (not to say emotional), that the requirement for sophisticated methods and accountability systems becomes quickly obvious when legislatures are faced with the angry voices of parents, teachers, unions, administrators, and tax payers—witness the lawsuits generated by the Compton School District and community in California, or the Chicago School District in Illinois. The worship of instrumental methodology is attested to in Chicago, where Paul Vallas, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools has imposed a centralized curriculum all students will have to learn. This "...helps protect kids from subpar teachers." "Despite having some weak instructors," Vallas says, "the U.S. military was able to institutionalize quality instruction through the quality of their materials. We will do the same." (Alter:30).

However, we must appeal for perspective—this bond between standardized assessment and "effective schools" is tenuous at best. High test scores, though indicative of "knowledge" (mode 1), do not in-and-of themselves predict or demonstrate high standards—if high standards are characterized as understanding and the ability to act. As John Gardner indicates, standardized tests reward the ability of students to "... spew...back the particular facts, concepts, or problem sets they have been taught." He continues, "Of course "correct" responses in these circumstances do not preclude genuine understanding; they just fail to guarantee that such genuine understanding has occurred." (Gardner:9). Standardized test scores may serve policy-makers and political leaders in their decisions, but they are insufficient as a basis of school and educational improvement because they do not meet the needs of decision makers on the classroom and student level.

Even determining what are the standards is no easy task. At the base it is an axiological issue: How good is good? How bad is bad? What is fair? What is knowable? Rather than deal with the issues of what is the purpose of education, or what should be its form (and formative nature), policy frameworks invariable rest their validation on tests—and scores therefore tend to become the arbitrator of what is good—the higher the score the better the demonstration of the Standard. An example is the State of Minnesota, which has implemented State generated graduation standards for all students. Without going into the myriad skills and competencies contained in the still-emerging book of standards, let us move quickly into the place were the educational rubber meets the road: the score board—the tests. If the State of Minnesota, or any state or district, is going to assess the schools by tests, the content of the standards must be found in the tests themselves. The veneration will return to the object—the test.

The scores, in turn, will be published and the results will read like the box scores of a sporting event, comparing school against school and classroom against classroom. This may be over-stating the case, however, the view embodied in this politically-driven assessment of schools by school "standards" is that rationality is inexorably associated with power, instrumental problem-solving, and the establishing of objective knowledge. The formative role of education as noted above in the early paideia, the use of reflection, or mediation, as a way of knowing, will have given way to a more active and teleological form of rationality where knowledge, and therefore power, is expressed through the application of technique.

The normed reference test as a determiner of value in fact is an example of modern instrumentalist rationalism devaluing tacit knowledge by promoting only the technical (explicit) forms of knowledge that can be formulated into rules, principals, directives, and maxims. Indeed, the conceptual foundations which would supply meaning for the individual's participation in a social process have become supplanted by a reductionist mode of inquiry that recognizes only the object plane of understanding and instrumental, prescriptive, discrete values.

Conversely, understanding—the ability to act in the community—relies on traditional cultures and mediated learning, on tacit, implicit forms of knowledge that are context dependent and shared as people participate in the routines and rituals of everyday life. (What Gardner characterizes as "performances of disciplinary—or genuine-understanding). This view reflects the early paideia, for in the eyes of the Greek, theory and life must always go together, and only when they are understood in this way can the philosopher maintain his claim of imparting the true paideia. In like manner, Jaeger points out that Clement of Rome, in the last decade of the first century, interprets the classical paideiaic notion of the organic conception of society (an almost mystical idea), as being the same as the unity of Christians in the body of Christ. (Jaeger 1961:19). So, to, Reuven Feuerstein's work with mediated learning demonstrates that our perception is generally the product of our concept of the world and our concepts may be taught by mediators who "show us the meaning" by drawing our attention to selected stimuli and "see meaning". The mediator of the classroom is the teacher—standing between and with the student and the world.

In the lineal model of the reductionist, the discrete elements of Mode 1 of the Paideia Proposal are most important, and, not surprisingly, are the easiest to measure. (Or are most important because they are easy to measure). However, the most significant issue is whether or not there is a linear movement from Mode 1 to Mode 3 at all, or whether there ever has been such a linear movement (the student must master #1 before moving to #2, etc.). A most important issue, and one unanswered by the policy-makers of standards and assessment, is whether or not there exists a paradigm that increases student's understanding. I would suggest there is a long tradition which would help answer this question, and indeed, serve to reformulate the purpose of education—toward understanding as opposed to reductionism. That tradition is in the mediator—the person standing between the student and the world, selection, sorting, and bringing meaning to otherwise discrete and isolated bits of data.

Schools, and politicians, driven by modern business leaders (many of the major studies leading to educational "reform" efforts have been funded by business) tend to only reproduce the conceptual categories and assumptions that have been essential to modernization and reflective of the positivist paradigm evolving out of scientific method and liberalism. This culture relativizes history for a basic tenant of the "technological" in that we slough off the limited and flawed past as we evolve surely, and surely better, into the future. The approach of the policy makers who are advocating "standards" as the measure of our educational progress surely are characterized by the beliefs that: a) rationality is regarded as the primary source of power, b) change is perceived as "progressive," c) technology is accepted as "legitimate," and, d) expert knowledge is accepted as authority. (Bowers:134).

Each of these beliefs generate a loss of meaning as they destroy the past and generate relativity as the state of being. This relativity in turn produces a concomitant centralizing of authority and a distancing of codes, laws, guidelines form teachers, curricula, and administrators insofar as determining courses of study and pedagogy. What has and is occurring throughout the United States in public K-12 education is the production and dissemination of standardized, systematized courses of study which will be evaluated by standardized, normed examinations. The resultant "scores" will inevitably be used by evaluate classrooms and teachers. This is a natural outgrowth of the adopting of Mode 1 as the touchstone of education. Evidence of this phenomena and the establishing of an authority claim may also be witnessed by the current publication of "lists" essential to knowing and valuing(Bennet and Hirsch) and the constant drone for "standards"—be they State or Federal.

This objectification also serves to set the world against the knower rather than aiding in setting the knower in the world (the knower as the object of history as opposed to the knower as the subject of history). This relativizes meaning and actually erodes authority as value. The result is the elevating of explicit knowledge (knowledge separated from context) over implicit and tacit forms of understanding, undermining not just attitudes toward physical reality, but undercutting traditional language, customs, and rituals through which cultures value and articulate the world.

The ancillary effect on the classroom, where students meet teachers, is that schools, following that same paradigm, expect teachers to deliver the curriculum (the text) in standardized ways (the method). Most importantly, this relativity also distances students from learning in the sense of learning being an involvement, or a "standing in a relationship," (Heidegger), which can only be generated by discourse with others and a "being in" the past and actively engaged in the present. What a difference there would be if Mode 3 were approached as the touchstone—critical thinking/understanding is not inevitably the same as scientific method or representation. "In thinking there is neither method nor theme, but rather the region, so called because it gives its realm and free reign to what thinking is given to think." (Heidegger 1971:74).

The difference continues in evaluating the role of the teacher in Mode 3—the dialectical mediator, rather then the prescriber of discrete skills in the model of the engineer. The role of the teacher, and of the text, as mediator, can be rescued and strengthened by an understanding of the connection between the content area of the curriculum and how it will be understood by the student. Valuing this connection involves recognizing the cultural pattern of thought (episteme) that underlies the organization of knowledge in the curriculum as well as the phenomenological world of the student. The teacher must take seriously the interaction between the language environment of the classroom and the student's consciousness. The social/educational policy determiner must take seriously that individuals rather than scientific method are the touchstone of authority in establishing consensus within the community. Scientific method does not embody embeddedness in tradition—rather it can contribute to rootlessness and nihilism. Individuals, embedded in tradition and text, must make critical judgments about relevance, use their historical knowledge as part of problem-solving processes, and use the method of intelligence to give direction and meaning to social experience.

If, in considering Paideia, we assume that education is primarily a linguistic function, the prescriptive view of science holds no promise for free, autonomous citizens. (This also assumes our end view of education is the development of free, autonomous citizens). A technology of education will not promote the communicative competence of the student. A technology of education values measurement, even measurement of the insignificant. In considering understanding we recognize that people do not simply respond to stimuli. They rather construe situations, and in doing so form the platform of context, carrying with them the linguistic values and patterns of the cultures in which they have been raised and schooled. We may argue that education, therefore, should be more than the text in Ricoeurian terms, (the unfolding of the tradition in front of the student—the student perceiving himself before the world of the work), rather than of the text in formalist, prescriptive, terms.

Indeed textbooks with discrete information, teachers with discrete sets of skills, and tests with discrete questions do not ensure increased student understanding in critical terms. Skilled teaching/mediation requires the ability to recognize the dynamic patterns of the student, the class, and the culture of each, to grasp these patters, and to respond. Good teaching requires the recognition that the relationship between the "modes" 1, 2, & 3 is circular—not linear. Elliot Eisner(1983:3), states, "When rules cannot be used to decode meaning and when prescriptions cannot be used to control practice, the teacher must rely on art and craft. To function as an artist or as a craftsman one must be able to read the ineffable yet expressive messages of classroom life. It requires a level of what I have called...educational connoisseurship...the ability to appreciate what one has encountered."

In the formation of educated youth, this appreciation grows into the ability to act. (Mode 3). Just as the metaphor of the craftsman(above) implies the possession of the repertoire, the image of the educated youth as able to act, implies the artist, the person capable of creating new realities. Logos, as Isocrates stated is what distinguishes the wise from the ignorant (Jaeger 1961:134). Education resting its authority on law, Mode 1, or simply standardized tests, will rest on man as the measure of all things—which will make all education relative. Plato reversed that famous sentence as God being the measure of all things. Paideia is the gradual fulfillment of the divine providence for Origen and Gregory of Jaeger's Early Christianity. Valuing not the object, but rather its formative power which leads to understanding is the paideia of the modern classroom just as it was for Gregory of Nyssa.

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Adler, Mortimer. The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto. New York, MacMillan Publishing Co. 1982.

Alter, Jonathan. "Chicago's Last Hope." Newsweek, June 22, 1998.

Ben-Hur, Meir. Mediation of Cognitive Competencies for Students in Need. Phi Delta Kappan. May, 1998.

Bowers, C.A. The Promise of Theory. New York. Teachers College Press. 1984.

Eisner, E. Teaching as Art and Craft. Educational 1983 Leadership, Vol. 40, January.

Heidegger, M. On the Way to Language. New York:Harper and Row, 1974.

Gardner, J. The Unschooled Mind. New York, HarperCollins, Publisher, 1991.

Jaeger, J. Early Christianity and Greek Paideia. Cambridge, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961.

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