Six Educational Traditions: The Tensions Within and Between Them

In my most recent blog I outlined five educational traditions that alternately compete with and complement each other in our academic institutions today. These are (1) the utilitarian (or instrumental), (2) individuating (or developmental), (3) transcendental (or existential, (4) classical (or canonical), and (5) progressive (or pragmatic) tradition. Now in response to the insightful analysis of my daughter Christy Lang Hearlson, who is completing her Ph.D. from Princeton in a related field of scholarship, I am adding a sixth tradition, (6) the Critical Justice (or prophetic) tradition.

In addition to these we can include the strictly individualistic and opportunistic tradition that is singularly focused on materialistic, commercial and consumer values, on money, status and success, or getting ahead in the rat race. For many this had become the new default purpose of education.

What I want to point out in this blog is that there are fissures, tensions and divides not only between these educational traditions but also within them. Here are some of the internal tensions between each of the six educational traditions. Sometimes these differences are viewed as compatible and complementary. Sometimes they are viewed and competitive and incompatible. And sometimes they are simply viewed as incomparable, like comparing apples and oranges, or better, bananas and elephants.

One: Within the utilitarian (or instrumental) tradition we can differentiate between these who emphasize basic life skills and basic work skills. We can also differentiate between those who emphasize proficiency in math and those who emphasize proficiency in reading.

Two: Within the individuating (or developmental) tradition we can differentiate between those who emphasize different aspects of the whole person and those who emphasize the development of all the vital life systems. The elements of the whole person include the physical, emotional, social, aesthetic, rational, volitional, ethical and spiritual dimensions. The various life systems include the self, partner, family, friends, work, leisure, culture and society. Obviously these can all work together, but there are whole schools of counseling and psychotherapy that tend to fixate on one or several of these elements while largely ignoring or minimizing the importance of the others.

Three: Within the transcendental (or existential) tradition we can differentiate between those whose worldview includes some kind of spiritual, metaphysical or transcendental dimension that is at work either beyond the natural physical world or more complexly both beyond and within it, and those who reject all metaphysical truth-claims with the conviction that “nature is enough.”

Moreover, we can differentiate between various “theological worlds” such as the existential, intercessory, redemptive, humanistic, prophetic and mystical options. The existential option views the divine mystery, however conceived, as “suffering with us.” The intercessory option views the divine mystery as that to which we pray for the provision of protection, healing and our daily bread. The redemptive option views the divine mystery as the source of forgiveness and adoption. The humanistic option views the divine mystery as concerned with the realization and fulfillment of our true humanity. The prophetic tradition views the divine mystery as engaged in the human struggle for social justice and compassion. The mystical tradition views the divine mystery inviting us to participle in or to become one with the divine life.

 Four: Within the classical  (or canonical) tradition we can distinguish between those who emphasize the primacy of the humanities and the arts on the one side and mathematics and the sciences of the other. We can also distinguish between those who emphasize the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition, the classical Greco-Roman tradition, the European philosophical tradition, the American constitutional tradition, or some other tradition, whether religious or secular, ancient or modern.

Five: Within the progressive (or pragmatic) tradition we can distinguish between the classical American pragmatists like William James and John Dewey and the so-called neo-pragmatic ironists like Richard Rorty and the post-modern tradition. Classical pragmatism emphasizes relational pluralism and the practical consequences of different beliefs, values and practices. Neo-Pragmatism moves further in the direction of post-modern relativism, irony, contingency. It seeks to live with not only competing but also an ironic and perhaps absurd plurality of incomparable narratives. There is no “grand narrative,” just local stories and myths deluding themselves that they constitute grand narratives. “Theories of everything” are viewed as the last delusions of rationalistic modernity.

Six: And finally, within the critical justice (or prophetic) tradition we can distinguish between those who emphasize either social class, gender, sexual orientation, race, tribe or nation as the primary power-struggle and political divide. Within the social class approach we can distinguish between those who identify primarily with the under-class, working class, middle class or upper class, along with the various educational and occupational levels and pursuits that correlate with the American social class system.

In any case the distinctions between our various educational traditions are far more complex and nuanced than any simple classification would suggest. Once people decide which of the six major educational traditions that most strongly identify with, a new argument breaks out among those who inhabit different “tribes” and “camps” within the same tradition. We continue to parse our differences to make finer and finer points until it appears to those outside the particular tradition that we are all make much ado about nothing. Some of the fiercest debates are not between the six educational traditions but between those who inhabit the same tradition but see it from a slightly different perspective. Of course if one is comfortable with mystery, ambiguity, plurality and paradox these debates, whether within or between educational traditions, or for that matter religious and political traditions, can be a critically constructive dialogical process. Those who are committed exclusively to the zero-sum logic of absolute dualism will succumb to the temptation to engage in a war of one against all.



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