The Purpose of Education: Four Competing and Complementary Traditions

For millions of Americans in our modern secular age “Education” has largely replaced “Religion” as the central organizing institution that gives foundational meaning to life as well as a community of tradition and practice. Of course there are also “cultural consumers” today who find little or nothing of value and meaning in either Religion or Education, centering their lives around work and leisure, productivity and entertainment without much regard to either spiritual or intellectual concerns.

Just as religion means many things to different people, the same is true of education. For example, in religion there are the shamanic, sagacious, prophetic and mystical traditions. And religion, like education, can be approached on many different levels of intellectual and cultural complexity, from the superstitious and simplistic to the reflective and contemplative.

When it comes to education in America there is no universal consensus as to what its governing purpose ought to be. Allow me to set forth the distinguishing characteristics of four competing educational traditions. These are the Instrumental, Progressive, Canonical and Radical Educational Traditions. Having worked for many years within and around centers of education, primarily universities, I have met persons who regard each of these four schools of thought as what education ought to be primarily about. Some would like to see all four of these traditions honored in some way, but the higher ranking given to one or two of them above the rest. Some educational centers have even decided to specialize in one or two of these traditions and let other institutions take care of the rest. So here they are:

1.The Instrumental Tradition: Those in this tradition believe that the central purpose of education ought to be the teaching of basic life-work skills. They believe students ought to prepared to function successfully with a particular productive economic role in society, especially through the workplace, whether defined developmentally as job, occupation, career or vocation. Along with this they ought to have basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic, along with science and technology, business and finance. And they ought  to have at least rudimentary social skills, the ability to get along with others.

2. The Progressive Tradition: Those in this tradition believe that the central purpose of education ought to be to develop “good citizens” who lead and serve the greater community and commonwealth in some way. They are to be equipped to become aware, concerned and involved in matters that effect the quality of life for their local community and society as a whole. They will be instructed in democratic values, civil discourse, servant leadership and institutional trusteeship. They will be encouraged to join various service organizations and to promote various social causes.

3. The Canonical Tradition: Those in this tradition believe that the central purpose of education ought to be a mastery of “general knowledge” of “the best that has been thought and written” by history’s most original and creative minds across the ages and in various cultures. This includes great works have found their way into the literary, historical, philosophical, artistic and scientific “Canon” of the Great Books and the creative masterpieces of western culture. At the center of this tradition is a love of intellectual and cultural history, including the philosophical and literary classics, as well as a passion for critical thinking, rational discourse, scientific knowledge and artistic expression. Canonical thinkers believe that we come to a larger understanding of who we are today and what we are becoming by reflecting deeply upon the shape of the past, including the dialectics of historical consciousness.

4. The Radical Tradition: Those in this tradition believe that the central purpose of education ought to be the development of “creative human potential” as a “self-actualizing person,” including the physical, emotional, social, aesthetic, rational, volitional, ethical and spiritual dimensions of a fully human life. They also believe that students ought to know how to nurture and integrate all of their essential life systems, including their personal system, couples system, family system, friendship system, work system, leisure system, social system, and environmental system. They would give special attention to the cultivation of those personal and trans-personal traits associated with Abraham Maslow’s idea of self-actualizing and self-transcending persons. Such “habits of the heart” and “character virtues” as wisdom, reverence, balance, wholeness, awareness, serenity, creativity, humor, hospitality, discernment, compassion and generosity are given special attention. 

Each of these four educational traditions has much to commend it, and there are those who attempt to sustain a constructive dialogue between all of them. However, it is not uncommon to find a more narrow and truncated approach to education today in many  places where the full spectrum of educational possibilities and potentialities are not kept in clear view. Today we need an Educational “Bildung” that encompasses the Instrumental, Progressive, Canonical and Radical Traditions. We need a pluralistic and integrative approach to education that encompasses Life-Work skills, Democratic Citizenship, Cultural Literacy and Personal Transformation. Anything less diminishes our humanity and retards our growth as whole human beings and “cultural creatives” who participate in interdependent relationships with the greater commonwealth of Nature and Society.

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