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Editors' introduction: does it really matter what we mean by the word or concept education?

Within his editorial introduction written for this issue's authors--all of whom were participants in both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID) Symposium and the 10th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Association of Educational Studies (SEAES) Conference--Nicholas J. Shudak describes their various perspectives regarding the overarching question: What is education? Although various symposium participants do grapple with other questions often considered basic to curriculum studies, such as "Whose knowledge matters?" and "Who has the right to know?" their overall energies are aimed towards this most basic--albeit neglected--question in our field.

What is education? For those of us concerned with seeking answers to this query, with its accompanying theoretical and pedagogical implications, reading this issue of the Journal of Thought means embarking upon a journey encompassed by the same dialogic springboards as those of the authors. Shudak explains that the CID Symposium was energized, firstly, by John Dewey's challenge to conceptualize education that is "pure and simple," and secondly, by Lawrence A. Cremin's forty-year-old assertion that educational leadership is unable to generate public educational debate because their own ideas regarding education's "ends and means" remain unclear. Cremin's admonition rings true for many if not most today. As contributor George W. Noblit explains, the meanings surrounding education are often obscured by a systemic a priori regarding knowledge, schools, and so forth which we accept without question.

Ironically, we are part of a culture where assumptions about education are so deeply entrenched that those of us who are committed to years of research and practice within a discipline by that name do not question the meanings and spaces assigned to our field. Within our own journey through this issue, it became evident that we in education are enacting "inherited" scripts, rather than constructing healthy identities. Too often, we assume that education and schooling are synonymous. However, in order to construct some sort of notion as to the ways in which the two work (or do not work) together, they must be examined both as separate and as interconnected entities. It is not only a matter of linguistic identity, but also of individual and collective identities within American culture(s) and our profession.

Significantly, the authors within this issue do not depict education and identity formation as taking place individually or in isolation, but rather, as emerging from interconnection, and involving the affect. Seeking answers to the question, "What is education?" is not--according to contributors such as Mary Stone Hanley, Kathy Hytten, Jim Garrison, and others--"simplistic"; but rather, it is ongoing, interactive, contradictory, and paradoxical. It involves interacting with the world. Quoting Dewey (1916), Hytten further explains that education is about "the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow men" (328). "Pure and simple," education is--at least in part--the often complex and messy process of who we are becoming as individuals and, therefore, as a society. Seeking answers to the basic question, "What is education," then, requires meaning making that is both intellectual and affective.

The importance of the affect within knowledge construction is both explicit and implicit within the writings of Dewey and others, but much like the quest to conceptualize and act upon a fuller picture of our field, it is a strand of curricular understanding that is rarely emphasized. Therefore, Hytten's discussion of education as democracy is particularly striking within our own explorations of the symposium's question. Shudak quotes her as saying that education "involves the cultivation of the habits of heart and mind that make democratic living possible. These include the habits of thinking critically and a disposition toward working for social justice." What is particularly interesting about Hytten's statement is her implication that in order to build democratic societies and to cultivate "habits of thinking critically," we must educate not only the mind, but also the heart.

In thinking about the affect's role in conceptualizing education, we recall the "heart's" power to uncover assumptions and to direct thinking within the lives of pre-service teachers. Reflecting some of the concerns within this issue, Robert Fried writes within The Passionate Teacher (a text that one of the editors typically uses with students in alternative certification classes) of every teacher's need to develop his or her own stance. Fried defines this term as "a philosophy, an attitude, a bearing, a way of encountering students," which is based upon our beliefs about who they are and what they can do (2001, 139). Questioning our own dispositions and purposes ideally leads us to a positive stance, which is something that each teacher can use as a guidepost for interacting with students in effective ways.

Although most students see the need for such practical reflection, many are so burdened by pre-conceived assumptions about their content areas and what they think that they are expected to say that they struggle to develop a philosophy, or stance, that is truly their own. It is only when they are asked in an informal way to jot down their first "gut" responses to questions such as: "Why did you initially want to be a teacher? What first attracted you to your content area? What do you want to accomplish in the lives of teenagers?" that they are able to make any headway in developing a working, flexible philosophy with which they are comfortable. Their successful results are a matter of giving their hearts (or "guts," as the case may be) a voice, of listening to themselves in order to "educate" both their hearts and their minds. It is an integration of knowledge formation and identity construction; what Benedictine historian and theologian Esther DeWaal terms as "listening with the ear of the heart" (1) (1998, iii). If education is a matter of both individual and collective identity building, then we cannot afford to ignore the integration of the heart and the mind when seeking answers to educational questions.

As Dewey and others contend, an aim of American education is to guide students towards democratic and social justice-oriented dispositions; therefore, we can no longer ignore or silence the standpoints of others in favor of our own. In light of our need to develop clear ideas about education, seeking or assuming complete dominance of our own paradigms is an act of collective "mis-eduation." So, if Dewey is correct, democracies need to listen to the voices of everyone as conceptions of education are considered, debated, refined, rejected, and/or accepted. From our own journey standpoint, Garrison's use of the German notion of Bildung is an important possibility for conceptualizing a fuller picture of education. Bildung appears to encapsulate an open-ended image of the ways in which education emerges in concert with all of our individual, institutional, and cultural intersections, those life connections from which our identities and knowing emerge. As Shudak explains, Garrison promotes the idea of "a single unity in diversity." It is only in a democracy that identity formation--and therefore related knowledge construction--can fully flourish. Perhaps it is a beginning in our journey towards answering the question, "What is education?

But should we question our own a priori assumptions about the idea of education? And do we need to be less dogmatic about our claims? In particular, should we push beyond the authors and even ask more demandingly, if humbly, if the question--What is education?--is a misguided query? That is to say, does it really matter what we mean by the concept or, better, our conceptions of education? Moreover, are our answers to the question little more than personal and political power moves--not reflective dialogues as we claim--that permit us to indoctrinate our students in the latest version of "truth." Are we not also new colonizers and interested in offering our own brand of imperialistic definitions to everyone, not just to indigenous populations and recent immigrants? And why should we care what Dewey and Cremin thought? Surely we can do better than cling to two dead white males in a multicultural world?

If we are influenced by the insights of some forms of perspectivism and situatedness, we might conclude that the meaning matters to the individual or to a particular group or culture or country, e.g., to a home schooling family, a Muslim neighborhood, a rural community, an urban setting, a capitalistic society, or a liberal democracy. But, if as perspectivists we are also influenced by a relativistic epistemology and ethic, we might also conclude that the answer does not ultimately matter since one answer to the question is as defensible--or indefensible--as another. So, our individual, cultural, group, and national preferences for a conception of education are exactly that--purely perspectival preferences. Thus, we might conclude that the question and attempts to answer it are, on one level, an ill-advised use of time, unless we simply wish to entertain ourselves by listening to or reading about questions of taste. If we move beyond English- and German-language influenced educational dishes, we find many more intriguing conceptions but still no trans-contextual,--cultural, or -paradigmatic concept of education.

Others, including a few contributors, may--do--disagree with this conclusion, at least partially. They may argue that the kinds of minds and hearts we ourselves have and nurture in classrooms are both individually and collectively significant. Our minds and hearts indicate who we are, what we value and do, how we relate to one another, and which types of political, educational, and economic institutions we wish to create and sustain. But do these objections matter? Are they little more than the affective cadavers of ancient, medieval, modernistic, and post-modernistic ideological mortuaries? But still others conclude that our exploration into these and related questions are only the intellectual parties of the educationally and economically privileged. Superintendents, professors and graduate students are educationally and economically privileged. Dare we question our assumed identities? Worse than assuming our unquestioned truths and identities, perhaps, is twiddling our conceptions while the neglected, marginalized, and disinherited smolder in the schools our graduates have unquestioningly accepted or even happily constructed.

Whatever our conclusions regarding the importance of the question "What is education?," we are indebted to the contributors and the guest editor for reminding us that whether the question is worth addressing or not is a somewhat moot question since many around us are more than willing to answer the question for us and for their own interests. Indeed, their answers are already serving their interests. Silence in such circumstances is rarely if ever golden.


DeWaal, E. (1998). Living with contradictions: An introduction to Benedictine spirituality. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse.

Fried, R. L. (2001). The passionate teacher: A practical guide. Boston: Beacon Press.


(1) DeWaal defines what it means to "listen with the ear of the heart" as a type of listening that involves "the whole of ourselves, our feelings, our emotions, and imagination."

Sally McMillan

Associate Editor

Texas Tech University

Douglas J. Simpson

Associate Editor

Texas Tech University
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Author:McMillan, Sally; Simpson, Douglas J.
Publication:Journal of Thought
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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Next Article:Symposium introduction and history: the background.

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