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Symposium introduction and history: the background.

The School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of fifteen education departments nationwide selected to participate in the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID)--a five-year research and action project to examine the character of doctoral education, regardless of department or program, in the United States and to explore ways of restructuring doctoral programs to better prepare graduates for research and employment. Begun in 2003, CID is a project of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching based in Stanford, California. The following symposium originated out of several meetings between professors and graduate students concerning the character and direction of the Ph. D. in education; these meetings are affectionately referred to as the CID.

An enduring question from these meetings, a haunting specter if you will, is what really is considered "Education" such that Ph. D. degrees are offered in it? Can a person who aggregates test score data from schools without ever really encountering a student, a classroom, a teacher, or a school claim that he/she does education? Is research with children a necessary and sufficient condition to claim that one's work is in education even if that work has nothing to do with schools and/or schooling? What if one's work is primarily concerned with schools in a structural and architectural sense? Can that person claim education as a profession? Is education only claimed by those people directly working and researching with children, teachers, curriculum, so on? Is education more than a foundational study of schools, as schools are encapsulated and directed by--yet also direct--the various social forces in a complex post-capitalist society? In other words, what, if any, professional proprietary claim can be made by individuals whose degrees are in education? Is there a unifying strand of theory and/or research that connects the data aggregator, the public school teacher, the early childhood researcher, the philosopher, and the culture and curriculum specialist, with the administrator? Might that strand of theory and/or research then be "education" in a "pure and simple" form as Dewey challenges?

From those meetings, a few graduate students decided that continuing such inquiries but in a different forum might benefit those in "education," and they took the opportunity of participating in the 10th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Association of Educational Studies (SEAES) Conference (1) hosted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The conference theme was "Situating Ourselves in Education" and was designed to encourage dialogue among professors, graduate students, practicing educators, activists, and others regarding how education in terms of bare meaning is perceived differently by those in the various domains of "education."

This particular conference commenced with a keynote event featuring a panel of distinguished professors who presented their responses to a delivered paper, one that was very similar to the first essay in this issue. The keynote was the event out of which this symposium was created. (2) There were a few ground rules, however, for the panel to follow, the spirit of which is found in this symposium. Because the SEAES conference is concerned with dialogical interaction around educational ideas, the panelists were required to limit their comments to about seven minutes; just enough time to put forth a position, but not enough time to substantively finish defending or explaining one's position. When the panelists were finished presenting, they participated in roundtable discussions as a way to extend and to clarify ideas in a dialogical format with interested others.

A challenging task indeed, however, the results were so promising that the panelists decided to give the keynote format a try through the written word, which is the basis of this issue. There's an inhering danger and difficulty to this written format due to the restriction on length. The purpose for such a restriction is quite pedagogical: it is to say something powerfully and succinctly in a scholarly manner that might spark dialogue in classrooms and amongst colleagues about education and its meaning, directionality, utility, so forth. Thus the theorizing and/or exegesis found in this issue is cuffed more so than usual for an academic journal. The authors, however, accept the charge and the challenge, and ask of those reading these essays to understand that each author would have liked to have said more. They knew they had to limit themselves, to leave things a bit more undefined than most would have liked, all for the pedagogical purpose of allowing the reader to continue in the process of creation with others.

Springboards To Jump into Dialogue

There are two particular springboards for this symposium. One is found in John Dewey's challenge for a conception of education that is "pure and simple," absent any "qualifying adjectives prefixed" (Dewey, [1938] 1997, 90). The other springboard is Lawrence A. Cremin's concerned assertion forty years ago that educational leaders are ill prepared to "spark a great public dialogue about the ends and means of education" because educational leaders "have no clear ideas about education" (Cremin, 1965, 111).

The symposium is split into three parts. The first part engages whether the meaning of education matters in any definable fashion, putting into question both Dewey and Cremin. The second part puts forth possible meanings of education so as to address Dewey's challenge and Cremin's concern; continuing the very necessary dialogue into meaning. The third part offers reviews of Dewey and Cremin's texts.

The value of this symposium is that it takes seriously the implications of Dewey and Cremin's assertions in light of the contemporary politico-ideological terrain in which schools, schools of education, and professional education programs are embedded. This symposium is not about finding the overarching meta-definition or logic of education to stand the test of time, rather, it is to continue a dialogue about the necessity of struggling over various understandings of education. Arguably, struggling over "education" is in fact a struggle over various and competing visions of society. This symposium engages in such a struggle by addressing the questions of whether visions of society through meanings of education are something with which our schools of education should be concerned. In such a sense, this symposium is struggling through something we might call thinking education. We might understand thinking education as the "postponement of immediate action" (Dewey, 1997, 64), of educational practice that critically examines how action in the classroom--a type of action in and with the world--animates from and is vitally and referentially connected to (critically examined or uncritically assumed) visions of society. An implied position throughout is the importance for those entering the teaching profession and/or those who are continuing careers in education to think education. Our hope is that this symposium offers a dialogical starting point.

Part I: Does Meaning Matter?

Considering Dewey and Cremin

Amee Adkins approaches the charges set forth through Dewey and Cremin with some reluctance and hesitation. It is a reluctance and hesitation that perhaps anyone "doing" education should consider: a reluctance to look for the overly simplified and a hesitation to look only in a few places. Although the work in education concerning defining and/ or meaning making might be instructive and at times labyrinthine--making it easy for people not to consider the implications of what one does as one "does" education--it is something, however, not to be taken lightly; and, there are many ways not to take education lightly other than adhering to Dewey or Cremin. Adkins uses scholars such as Lisa Delpit, Paulo Freire, and bell hooks to discuss how one might "do" education, in that education might mean the "intentional intervention that influences a person's subjectivity." "Doing" education borders the sacred, and those teaching should have an understanding as to why. As Adkins states, "No one is simply entitled to teach ... because to teach is to affect other people's children. You don't just get to do that because you wanta."

In addressing Dewey's call, Kathy Hytten suggests that an understanding of what Dewey might have had in mind regarding education "pure and simple" is a vision of education tending toward social justice and the development of democratic dispositions. This, according to Hytten, "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." Opening up such a possibility for education as exercised in and by the schools, however, requires that how we talk about broader and necessary visions of education and society shift from narrow objective and goals talk, to aims talk which allows for the questioning of the technocratic rationality of the former.

James D. Marshall considers any exercise in looking for the meaning of education as being similar to looking for the lost arc. For Marshall, if we are concerned with the meaning of education, then it might be best for us to look at how the term is being used in a particular context knowing full well that the contexts are multiple. In such a case, naming is not as important as the connotative features and the inspired actions. Marshall also asks the reader to consider what is the point of trying to find the meaning when there are a number of ways to talk about education when an unequivocal definition is absent?

David Gabbard takes a different, although not necessarily opposing, view. His is an essay that is concerned with the proprietary aspect of the meaning of education and how it is used in the political context. An argument he makes is that it does not necessarily matter whether there is an unequivocal meaning; what matters is that there are particular meanings of education being used in the sphere of high profile politics that are having definite detrimental effects on public education. Also, what matters in education is that competing meanings and visions that would benefit public education are offered. It is important for those who opposed the current condition and rhetoric to give the public substantive fodder for developing positions. Implicit in his argument, however, is that meaning (as multiple as it might be) is found in education, and that it is not merely something assigned to it. Gabbard's position is that education matters.

Gabbard's essay leads into Deron Boyles'. From Gabbard we have a position stating forthrightly that meaning matters in education; that there is currently a meaning being heralded and widely applied to the various educative processes in schools, and its meaning is controlled by a particular politico-economic directorate. Gabbard names this, as does Boyles. What Boyles' essay does, however, is unveil an alternative to the neoconservative stronghold on economics. This unveiling lays open an unknown space regarding the connection or disconnection between education and economics. From Boyles, we are challenged with the following: What would K-12 schooling be like if it were not guided by the dictates of the economy? Do our preservice teachers recognize this connection? How might our society be different if K-12 curriculum was geared toward the liberal arts instead of math and sciences? Are our preservice teachers prepared to imagine a curriculum beyond economics?

Part II: Unique Meanings of Education

Mary Stone Hanley also questions the search for the pure and simple within something as complex and delicate as education. According to Hanley, education is a cultural project full of paradoxes and contradictions. If we are going to consider education in terms of cultural transmission and transformation, as she would have us, then it is well for us to remember the paradoxical and contradictory nature of education. But for her, paradoxes and contradictions are not necessarily stumbling blocks, within them are found the power and awe of education. The aforementioned, according to Hanley, is why we should look skeptically at simplicity. When simplicity happens, transformation is often challenged. Asking what cultural knowledge is most worth transmitting is a primal search for comfort, control, and certainty; but if endeavored, it should be a search with transformation, especially of self, as a check and balance.

Jim Garrison's essay offers the German idea of Bildungstheorie as a possible starting place for a discussion into unique meanings of "education." He admits that Bildung is a vague and ambivalent idea that brings together multiple bodies of knowledges and understandings into "a single unity in diversity." Bildung, as described by Garrison, helps us conceptualize education in terms of the confluences and intersections between educative processes of cultural institutions, including explicitly educational institutions, with an understanding that those institutions of culture are developed by individuals.

George W. Noblit offers to the discussion of meaning and whether it matters a problematizing and complexifying of the embeddedness of assumptions within dominant understandings of school knowledge and practice. He does so by turning to a Dewey quote concerning the a priori that has proven instructive to his pedagogy in the college classroom. Assumptions of schooling, learning, knowledge, school organization, so on--the a priori embedded within social and educational institutions--that are unquestioned or unquestionable, are mastering those who hold them, "and this is prejudice in its root form." According to Noblit, "Education, then, is about learning how to question assumptions so that one can practice knowing," which ultimately depends on the questioning of self and ideas and the prejudices of both.

Lynda Stone's contribution regarding whether meaning matters in education starts by borrowing a description from Nel Noddings, which illustrates the 'absurdity' that many live with in terms of daily school life. After developing an intellectual lineage of the concept and how a recasting might look in contemporary schools, she suggests the significant ethical import of her reinterpretation. Here is her point: 'Absurd' is often used to 'describe particular sets of conditions' in education today that might be considered conditions of crisis. However, describing them or society more generally as absurd can be something very positive. Although the term historically carries a weighty negative stigma, Stone's education for absurdity looks instead at the possibilities of creating new conditions and practices that begin at the moment of naming. For Stone, considering the language of 'absurd,' of looking at indeterminancy and discrepancy as positivities, is a necessary first step.

Part III: Reviewing Dewey and Cremin

The remainder of this symposium is comprised of two book reviews concerning this issue's "springboard" books: Dewey's Experience and Education and Cremin's The Genius of American Education. Each author--Linda O'Neill and David Holdzkom respectively--adhere to the pedagogical intent of this issue by providing the reader with substantive insights in a brief format to help wade through and make sense of what is at times dense material. O'Neill discusses particular reasons why Experience and Education "is still a source of insight, inspiration and intrigue." In doing so, she highlights Dewey's enduring critique of dichotomies and posits a "generative dichotomy" that Dewey allowed to stand. Holdzkom, on the other hand, takes a look at Cremin's The Genius of American Education with an eye toward juxtaposing the era in which the book (compiled lectures) was written and wondering throughout what really is the genius.

On behalf of the authors in this volume, I would like to encourage readers to use the material herein as a way to ignite conversations with preservice and inservice teachers as well as with beginning graduate students about meaning in education and whether it really matters; to get those most closely associated with schools and classroom practices to question what it is they are doing and why.


Cremin, L.A. (1965). The genius of American education. New York: Vintage Books.

Dewey, J. (1997). Experience and education. New York: Simon & Schuster.


(1) Amee Adkins (Illinois State University) and Kathy Hytten (Southern Illinois University) created SEAES. Their vision was a regional forum for the promotion and dissemination of research in the areas of sociology, anthropology, history and philosophy of education. Over the years it has opened to many other sub-fields in education outside of the traditional educational studies domains. SEAES has convened at a variety of universities in North Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia.

(2) Two panelists respectfully declined participation in this symposium due to conflicting schedules: Thomas James, Dean of the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Svi Shapiro, distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Nicholas J. Shudak

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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Author:Shudak, Nicholas J.
Publication:Journal of Thought
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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