Issues in Philosophy of Education

There are a number of basic philosophical problems and tasks that have occupied philosophers of education throughout the history of the subject. Following is a partial list, with references for further reading.

Education and Authority in a Pluralistic Society

Core Questions

What justifies the state in compelling children to attend school? What justifies the demands that teachers place on students? Is the freedom of students rightly curtailed by the state?

Is the public school system rightly entitled to the power it exercises in establishing curricula that parents might find objectionable—as with the teaching of biological evolution instead of intelligent design, or the teaching of literature with themes parents find unsuitable? Should parents or their children have the right to opt out of such material?

Should schools encourage students to be reflective and critical generally, or should they refrain from encouraging students to subject their own ways of life to critical scrutiny?


Some argue that parents should have ultimate authority regarding their children's educations, on the grounds that parents are more trustworthy, and in a more legitimate position of authority, than any government officials could be. Critics of this notion argue that it is not a parent's right to control the educational fate of their children, and furthermore that the intolerant religious traditions of some could serve to undermine a reasonably democratic multicultural society.

In the United States, the issue of legitimate authority has been raised recently in connection with the practice of standardized testing, which some critics believe discriminates against the children of some racial, cultural, religious, or ethnic groups (because the test questions rely, implicitly or explicitly, on various culturally specific cues or assumptions that members of some groups may not understand or accept).

In such controversial cases, what power should members of allegedly disadvantaged groups have to protect their children from discrimination or injustice? The answer to this question, as to the others raised above, may depend in part on the status of the particular school as public (state-supported) or private. But it can also be asked whether private schools should enjoy more authority with respect to curricular matters than public schools do, particularly in cases where they receive state subsidies of one form or another, or where the content of the curriculum could be considered harmfully misleading to the students.

While these issues largely involve questions in ethics and political philosophy, they are also informed by other philosophical concerns. For example, questions of metaphysics (e.g., how are 'groups"to be individuated and understood?), philosophy of science (e.g., what, if anything, marks the boundary between genuine scientific theory and theories such as intelligent design?), and psychology (e.g., do IQ tests discriminate against members of certain minority groups?) are all relevant matters.

Critical thinking

Philosophers of education generally agree that instilling critical thinking skills and rationality in students should be an aim of education, if not the aim.

Core Questions

What is it exactly to think critically, and why should educators hold it in such high esteem? Can an account be given of critical thinking that can be generalized across disciplines?

Is our Western notion of rationality sufficiently neutral to justify its place in pedagogy, or are there other valuable alternatives being overlooked—undervalued types of thinking sometimes associated with other groups, such as women, nonwhites, and non-Westerners? Is reason itself, as some feminist and postmodern philosophers have claimed, a form of hegemony?


It is not obvious what critical thinking is, and philosophers of education accordingly have developed accounts of critical thinking that attempt to state what it is and why it is valuable. These accounts generally agree that critical thinkers share at least the following two characteristics:

  1. they are able to reason well—i.e., to construct and evaluate various reasons that have been or can be offered for or against candidate beliefs, judgments, and actions; and
  2. they are disposed or inclined to be guided by reasons so evaluated—i.e., to judge and act in accordance with the results of such reasoned evaluations.

Beyond this basic agreement lie a host of contentious issues.

One group of issues is epistemological in nature. What is it to reason well? What makes a reason, in this sense, good or bad? More generally, what epistemological assumptions underlie (or should underlie) the notion of critical thinking? Does critical thinking presuppose conceptions of truth, knowledge, or justification that are objective and universal, or is it compatible with more relativistic accounts emphasizing culture, race, class, gender, or conceptual framework?

Philosophers of education and educational theorists also argue whether critical thinking is relevantly 'neutral" with respect to the groups who use it, or if it is in fact politically or culturally biased. Do standard accounts of or courses in critical thinking favor and help to perpetuate the beliefs, values, and practices of dominant groups in society and devalue those of marginalized or oppressed groups?

Other issues concern whether the skills, abilities, and dispositions that are constitutive of critical thinking are general or subject-specific. In addition, the dispositions of the critical thinker noted above suggest that the ideal of critical thinking can be extended beyond the bounds of the epistemic to the area of moral character, leading to questions regarding the nature of such character and the best means of instilling it.


Many theorists have assumed a clear distinction between education proper and indoctrination, which is assumed to be undesirable.

Core Questions

Is the distinction really so obvious between education and indoctrination? Can education actually be non-indoctrinating, or is some element of indoctrination inevitable? Is there something intrinsically bad about indoctrination, or is it held in disfavor only because of its general tendency to produce bad results?


Analytic treatments of the concept of indoctrination have fallen roughly into one of three categories:

  1. Locating indoctrination in the aims of the educator—intending to bring students to adopt beliefs independently of the evidential support those beliefs may have;
  2. Considering the method by which educators transmit beliefs—precluding students from engaging critically with these beliefs, by way of asking questions or demanding reasons;
  3. Treating the content of the beliefs imparted—content that does not admit of rational support or that is to be believed independently of such support.

These accounts all result in a particular picture of indoctrination: the indoctrinated student has beliefs that have not been subjected to rational scrutiny; critical thinking did not play a role in the adoption of these beliefs.

But if we are to take such accounts seriously, we must also consider whether or not indoctrination can be avoided—and if it cannot, whether we should be so quick to eschew it. At least in the early stages of development (and perhaps in the later stages too), students lack the cognitive capacities to challenge, evaluate, or critically consider that which they are taught. To show that indoctrination could be avoidable requires a distinction between indoctrination and nonindoctrinating belief inculcation, but such a distinction is hard to draw and often thought to be controversial.

The individual, society, and autonomy

Core questions

What is the place of schools in a just or democratic society? Does the aim of educating children for their own good conflict with the aim of educating them for the common good?

Is the point of education to promote a thriving economy, to foster competent citizen scrutiny of those in authority, to give citizens the tools to make informed choices, to prepare them for the work force, or something else?


In approaching these questions about the individual, society, and education, there is a general conflict between a more liberal viewpoint of the aim of education—in which the independence of the individual is stressed over the good of the society—and a more communitarian view—in which the individual's far-reaching dependence on and obligation to society has weight.

Identifying a universal aim of education would go a long way towards resolving this conflict: the traditional approach is one in which critical thinking is cultivated in both spheres, but recent emphasis has turned to matters of fostering autonomy in students. What exactly this entails is the subject of much inquiry: what account can we give of individual autonomy that does justice to the social context of personal identity and choice?

Moral Education

Core questions

Should educators aim to instill particular moral beliefs and values in students, or should they try to enhance students' ability to think through moral issues on their own? Does a proper education tend to instill certain virtues—such as honesty and patience—or to reveal important moral standards and principles? How does learning such principles affect moral behavior?


Answering such questions inevitably leads us to issues in moral epistemology, which is concerned with the epistemic status of moral claims and judgments. We see again a resistance to the kind of moral absolutism or imperialism that some think necessary to justify teaching any one particular set of values to students, and again we see concerns regarding indoctrination: are attempts to teach students to think effectively about moral issues tacit forms of proselytization? Finally, moral issues in the philosophy of education reflect important themes in meta-ethics, such as the tension between rationalist and sentimentalist schools: is moral education a matter of exposing students to ethical reasoning, or instead a matter of inculcating positive emotional dispositions, like empathy?

Teaching, learning, and curriculum

Core questions

What should be taught in our schools? How should we determine whether a student has learned enough, and how much actually qualifies as 'enoughÓ?

Should there be just one common curriculum for all students, or should the curriculum any one student follows be tailored to his or her special combination of interests and abilities, as John Dewey recommended? Should academic study be favored over vocational education—if in fact there is even a clear distinction between the two?

To what degree, if any, should teachers seek (ethnic, gender, socioeconomic) diversity in their classroom?


If we can answer the question of what to teach, we should still wonder how students should be taught. John Locke conceived of the human mind as a 'blank slateÓ; it seems to follow from this that students should be expected to passively absorb the information they're taught. On the other hand, Dewey and many other psychologists and educators have held that learning is most effective when students take an active part in their educations, engaging in self-directed discovery and learning. Which model of the mind is most appropriate?

It is common to evaluate the success of both teachers and students with high-stakes standardized tests. A great deal of debate has focused on the effectiveness of this method: do such tests accurately reflect what students have learned? Do they encourage teachers to only 'teach to the testÓ, to students' detriment? Are these tests racially discriminatory? Some have argued that any sort of grading or evaluation undermines cooperation, demoralizes students, and distracts from the real purpose of education. If these charges are true, how can the very reasonable demands of teacher and student accountability be answered?

These are all complex matters, involving philosophical questions concerning the nature of the mind, the aims and legitimate means of education, the psychology of learning, the organizational demands of schooling, and a host of other matters to which social-scientific research is relevant.

Feminism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism

By the 1970's the influence of analytic philosophy on philosophy of education had begun to wane, and feminist, multiculturalist, and postmodern critiques of education and educational theory became more prevalent. Such criticisms aimed not only at the tacit assumptions of educational content and pedagogy, but also questioned traditional views concerning the universality and neutrality of Ôreason' and critical thinking, and even of knowledge and truth. These three critical movements are neither internally univocal nor unproblematically combinable; what follows is therefore oversimplified.


Feminist philosophers of education critique traditional and often tacitly male-oriented perspectives on the appropriate aims and methodology of education. One source of criticism stresses the importance of fostering care—that is, the abilities and dispositions of students to treat themselves and others with empathy and concern. A more general aim is to focus less on the cognitive development of students, and to instead emphasize the importance of traditionally overlooked talents, such as emotional intelligence and intuition.

Relatedly, many feminist philosophers of education have questioned the focus traditional approaches to the philosophy of education place on those skills that are exercised in the public domain—skills such as reason, objectivity, and impartiality. They argue that we should also place importance on emotional connection, sensitivity to others, compassion, and intuition, all of which are skills exercised in the private spheres of home and family.

As with multicultural and postmodern schools of educational philosophy, feminism is beset with its own share of internal conflict. For example, some feminist philosophers argue that it is important for boys and girls to master both masculine and feminine roles and abilities. Others object to these categories in the first place. Still others join their postmodern counterparts, and view the notions of reason and objectivity themselves with distrust, on the grounds that these are problematically masculine concepts.


Multiculturalist philosophers stress the importance of diversity in education and educational theory. They argue that curriculum and pedagogy often reflect the interests of the dominant cultural group at the expense of others, and argue that the languages, customs, beliefs, and values of other worldviews deserve a place of equal respect in the classroom.

What this entails, however, is the subject of much debate. Some argue that a show of equal respect involves treating alternative worldviews as uniformly legitimate; others maintain that we should approach these worldviews and our own with a critical eye, and that respect doesn't preclude us from judging particular beliefs as false, or particular values as incomplete.

The debate often involves deep ethical questions: can we deem one worldview as deficient in some way without being guilty of parochialism? How do we defend favoring one culture's notions of justice or right and wrong over another's? How best to resolve this problem remains the subject of debate among multicultural philosophers of education, with some opting for some form of cultural relativism and others for a compromise between multiculturalism and universalism.


Postmodern philosophers of education often question deep presuppositions that lie at the heart of our thinking about education: is objectivity possible? Can reason itself be neutral, or must we always understand it in context? Can we separate the notion of truth from the prescriptions of those in power? Is education itself merely a tool by which those in power maintain social and economic inequalities?

Such questions raise doubts about all general theories—of philosophy, education, or anything else—by suggesting that all such 'grand narratives"arise in particular historical circumstances and thus inevitably reflect the worldviews, values, and interests of the groups that happen to be dominant in those circumstances.

Like feminists and multiculturalists, postmodern philosophers do not speak with a single voice. Some feel that the appropriate response to the questions postmodernism raises is to be more vigilant and more reflective about the deep and often unjustifiable influences of a dominant culture, in order to strive for a more just and tolerant society. Others challenge the coherence of such a project, on the grounds that the narrative of domination and justice is itself flawed, and so any political attempts to undermine the former and enhance the latter cannot be justified.


Feminist, multiculturalist, and postmodern philosophers of education all call into doubt underlying premises of modern pedagogy and philosophy, highlighting their inescapably political nature. They share in the project of uncovering the relations of power in educational theory and practice, often aiming at a more comprehensive account of education, one informed by the values and beliefs of those groups that are traditionally ignored or excluded.

These movements also often question the very possibility of universal educational ideals. Critical responses to these challenges have been many and varied; one of the most notable consists of pointing out the apparent inconsistency involved in claiming that, as a general matter, general accounts of education, justice, and the like are impossible. These views in some ways challenge philosophy generally, and so a thorough treatment of these criticisms would involve issues in ethics, epistemology, philosophy of politics, and theories of meaning and truth, to name a few.

This site is hosted by UM, with generous financial help from the university's Ethics Programs, to provide resources for those interested in the aims and methods of education, and to highlight our own commitment to excellence in this field. This site organized and edited by Haley Mathis; please send questions and comments to Special thanks to Harvey Siegel; a great deal of the written material on this website is borrowed (with significant changes) from his Britannica Online Encyclopedia entry:

Education, Philosophy of . (2007). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved September 10, 2007, from Encyclopadia Britannica Online: