Do We Have a Philosophy of Education?

By Graham Mundy

The intention of this paper is to suggest that New Zealand has no philosophy of education, and that the many problems permeating our education system are a consequence of this. A selection of some of these problems will be outlined, and will be shown to have arisen from a lack of underlying principles which, had they existed, would have provided both epistemological and ethical touchstones, which in turn would have exposed these inadequacies.

Many educators will insist that they are indeed guided by a philosophy of education, some referring to their school’s mission statement or, at a more substantial level, to statements such as Peter Fraser’s 1939 speech, which included the following:

“… that every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind to which he is best fitted and to the fullest extent of his powers.”[i]

While this is an admirable statement it is not a philosophy of education. At the best it is an implied imperative of the State’s obligation to provide education, but it does not have the status of a foundational principle as would be expected of a philosophy of education. Fraser’s statement fails to provide such a principle, as it is open to challenge. There are many places throughout the world where education is considered not a basic human right, but a privilege. Sadly, as will be demonstrated below, this belief is present albeit covertly, in the minds of many responsible for the delivery of education in this country.

It is proposed first to examine some current problems within the New Zealand education system and suggest that they would not exist if we had a philosophy of education, the foundational principles of which would provide a touchstone for both current practices and new initiatives. That is, we would have a way by which we could show whether both government decisions and what takes place in our classrooms is consistent with our philosophy of education. What follows is a brief outline of some of these problems.

  • Conceptual confusion. Wittgenstein said that there are no purely philosophical problems – they are all problems of language. Sort out the language within which the problem is stated and it will disappear. This points to much of the confusion evident in our current education system. We seem unable to elucidate just what the problems are. We think that because we are all using the English language then we all understand concepts in the same way, but this is not the case. For example, how many can give a definition of education that clearly demarcates it from other forms of teaching and learning, such as training and indoctrination? In order to avoid such confusion I must make it clear just what I mean when I talk about a philosophy of education. As indicated above, a philosophy of education is not a one-liner, nor is it a philosophic-sounding platitude. It is a system based on fundamental principles from which educational policies, research and imperatives of action are derived.
  • Assessment. Nowhere is conceptual confusion more evident than in that world of the lost compass – The New Zealand Qualifications Authority. From the Sixth Form Certificate ‘horse trading’ of grades[ii] to achievement-based assessment to the current NCEA we have witnessed a parade of failed experiments, with each being trumpeted as the panacea. Much of this confusion is due to the fact that there seems to be no clear understanding of why we assess. Is it to advise pupils and their parents on their progress? Or is it a way for teachers to monitor their teaching? Or is it to provide a sorting mechanism for employers? Or is it to compare schools?
  • The Education Review Office. This is another “educational” agency bereft of a raison d’etre. In 1989 ERO replaced the inspectorial system, and that replacement heralded a major shift in emphasis from the classroom to administration. Whereas inspectors were subject specialists who focused on subject knowledge and teaching skills, the function of ERO is that of a generic compliance agency concerned with auditing the existence and compliance of the school’s policies, systems and self-evaluation procedures. Yet while it purports to have educational significance it has in fact little to do with education.[iii] Although its role statement says “… reviews are reports to boards of trustees, managers of early childhood education services and the Government on the quality of education provided…” their evaluation of ‘the quality of education provided’ is inferential rather than direct. Having experienced several classroom visits from ERO personnel I can attest that their interest has been more on my compliance with the school’s declared policies and procedures than on the quality of my teaching. There appears to be a belief that if all the school’s systems are in place then quality education is being offered. This is analogous to a vehicle’s warrant of fitness. Mechanics may be able to bring a car up to the warrant’s standard, but this tells us nothing about how the car is being driven.
  • Recognition of teacher quality. The hierarchical structure of the teaching profession is a matter of concern in that excellent teachers do not get the recognition that they deserve. Many of these teachers, having reached the top of their salary scale, receive no further recognition for their contribution. The only way for them to progress financially is to leave the classroom, either partiallyor totally. Secondary teaching is for many teachers a second choice occupation resulting in a number of teachers not being fully committed to their choice, and are therefore more likely to seize the opportunity to take on a management role.

    The upshot of this is that these classroom refugees end up being paid more than their more dedicated colleagues. This is usually justified by claiming that those taking on management roles are taking on extra duties. This is not the case – they are taking on alternative duties and given a time allowance for this. Further, many of these administrative tasks have little to do with education, and could be carried out by a competent office junior. This situation is exacerbated by the reluctance of the teachers’ union to reward excellence on the grounds that the qualities of teacher excellence are too difficult to assess. This is nonsense, as shown by the U.K. Sally Coates Reports.[iv]

    The confused thinking now comes to the fore with the strange new initiative, Investing in Educational Success (IES). This proposal not only assumes that teacher excellence can be identified, but also that it can be so fine-tuned as to identify both “lead teachers” and “expert teachers”. It also appears to be able to identify “executive principals”. The plan is already under fire from within the profession, showing we have yet another shot in the dark with little underlying rationale, such as would be afforded by a philosophy of education.

  • Access to education. If education is a basic human right, to what extent is it legitimate to deny that right? Certainly a pupil whose behaviour is a threat to the educational rights of others would legitimise suspension, but we constantly hear of pupils being suspended for infringing dress or grooming rules that are little more than a personal expression of the principal and board of trustees’ values. The recent case of a boy who was suspended for refusing to have his hair cut to an arbitrary standard,  and had to appeal to the High Court to have his human rights restored[v], illustrates what can happen in the absence of guiding principles. Now there seems to be a fear that this will have schools rushing to examine their own rules, which again points to the arbitrary nature of many rules.

The above is just a sample of the many problems endemic in our education system and which, I believe, point to the need for a formal philosophy of education. What is needed to initiate this process is to come up with some fundamental presuppositions (axioms) to form the foundation of this philosophy. While obviously such presuppositions can never have the status of mathematical axioms, they can be afforded a pragmatic status which will serve this purpose. For this we turn to Wittgenstein. I refer to his concept of hinges of reason. In his On Certainty he looks at the question of doubt, and concludes that the person who doubts everything would end up doubting nothing, as the very game of doubting presupposes certainty. To doubt something we would have to know what would remove that doubt. “A doubt without an end is not even a doubt.”[vi] His point is that the extreme sceptic could go on ad infinitum, never reaching certainty. His solution was to say that we must reach a stage where it is fruitless to go further, as there is no further to go. We must at this point put our ultimate belief firmly in place and see where it leads us. That is, it becomes our “hinge of reason”. We must put the hinges in place in order for the door to turn. So also, we must put our hinges of reason in place in order that our understanding of our world may turn on them.

Such is the position taken here – we must find educational presuppositions (hinges of reason) on which we all agree, and make these the foundation of our philosophy of education. This is not as difficult as it may at first seem. For example we could start with the status of the new born child and the status of the species.[vii] The child needs initiation into the species, and the species needs the child for its continuation. Such a proposition would be difficult to challenge. From this we should be able to derive the need for education, and this includes all education, starting with the first interaction between the neonate and its parents.[viii] We no doubt would also want to include some propositions based on basic human rights. Together these should provide the basis for the derivation of imperatives of action and a touchstone for educational decision making.

It must be emphasised that it has not been the intention of this paper to suggest the actual content and structure of a New Zealand philosophy of education. It is simply to show that there are significant problems in our education system which can be traced to the absence of a philosophy of education, and that such a philosophy can be achieved. Perhaps some serious dialogue on this problem is well due.


[i] Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1939, E-1, 2-3. This would have been written for Fraser by the then Director General of Education, Dr Clarence Beeby.

[ii] Schools were given an allocation of grades from 1 to 9 based of their students’ performance in the previous year’s School Certificate results. These were then allocated to the various subject areas, where the heads of department would allocate them to their students on the basis of individual exam results. If it was found that, for example, that one subject had too many grade 1s and insufficient grade 2s the head of department could trade grades with another subject.

[iii] Those who dispute this could do well to check out their definition of education.

[iv] The first of the Sally Coates Reports outlines the basic teacher qualities, while the second is concerned with the qualities of the “master teacher”. Both reports can be found in full on the internet.

[v] Although the Judge did not specifically mention the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the school appears to have acted in contravention of Article 26 (1) and (2), Article 19, and Article 29 (1) and (2).

[vi] Wittgenstein, L., On Certainty, 1977. Edited by GEM Anscombe and GH von Wright, Blackwell.

[vii] The reasoning here is that the neonate, although being of the human species is alien to the human form of life, into which it requires initiation. This initiation marks the beginning of the child’s education.

[viii] The position taken here views education as a life-long pursuit permeating all aspects of our life. Although the specific concern of this paper is with formal schooling it is important to keep in mind that this aspect of education occupies just one small corner of the educative domain. Parents are the primary educators and their major contribution is being responsible for the child’s acquisition of language, a defining characteristic of the human form of life. Nothing the child later learns will approach this in educational significance. A 17 year old student will have been exposed to formal teaching for only 11% of his or her life span to date. During this time exposure to other learning experiences will have occupied the remaining 89%. By age 70 the schooling input will have reduced to 1.7% of the person’s life span.  Of course it will be claimed that formal schooling has lasting influence. But so also do other avenues of learning, and so also does poor schooling.


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