What does it mean to be an educated person? An historical overview.

By Natalie Woods


Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau associated the aims of education with beliefs about society, reason and emotion, and knowledge and freedom. Their treatment of these themes profoundly influenced ideals of the ‘educated person’ that emerged in the West during the 19th century. A review of literature published since the late 19th century revealed that these ideals generally fell into one of four broad categories: the rational individual; the worker; the explorer; and, the critical intellectual. Each vision made assumptions about society, human nature, knowledge, and freedom. This review outlines those visions, discusses the tensions between them, and analyses the influence they have had on contemporary educational thought and policy in New Zealand.

Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau on Education

Section one introduces the educational ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau, focusing on their treatment of three key topics: (1) the relationship between society and the individual; (2) the relationship between reason and emotion; and (3) the relationship between knowledge and freedom. How each philosopher understood these key themes influenced his approach to education.

Society and the individual

Many philosophers have considered the kind of moral obligations that should exist between individuals and the societies in which they live. Mill, for example, argued that “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (Mill, as cited in Wolf, 1996). Mill believed that the rights of the individual prevailed over the rights of society, and that any constraints placed upon individual freedoms by the State should be minimal, and could be justified only if their purpose was to protect the rights of others (Wolf, 1996, p. 114). In contrast to Mills liberal individualism, a collectivist view emphasises that individuals are members of a community that shapes and sustains their way of life, and their identities. Philosophers who hold this view prioritise duties and social responsibilities over individual freedoms (Wolf, 1996, p. 144). In education, an emphasis on liberal individualism fosters student choice, competition, and individual achievement. A collectivist view, on the other hand, emphasises care towards others, community responsibilities, tradition, and ‘good’ citizenship. Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau, each explored these implications from different philosophical perspectives.

In considering the type of education needed for the citizens of his ideal state, Plato prioritized the needs of society over the rights and freedoms of individuals. In imagining an ideal State, Plato divided his citizens into three classes: the guardians, the auxiliaries, and the producers (farmers, artisans, etc.). Each citizen was to be educated in a manner best suited to his or her particular function in society. Plato defined a virtuous state as one in which each individual performed his or her duties to the best of his or her abilities without meddling in the affairs or duties of others (Plato, 1930). Therefore, Plato’s approach to education was “designed to produce competent adults to meet the needs of the state” (Noddings, 2011, p. 38). However, Plato believed that his state was designed according to reason and that his citizens, therefore, would be ruled by reason, rather than by arbitrary, or irrational, social customs.

Aristotle (1984), like Plato, saw a close connection between the nature of a state and the nature of its citizens, and he believed that citizens should be adjusted through education to suit the form of government under which they lived. In Politics, Aristotle wrote, “The legislator should direct his attention above all to the education of youth; for the neglect of education does harm to the constitution. The citizen should be moulded to suit the form of government under which he lives” (Aristotle, 1984, p. 78). By this, Aristotle meant that an individual was an integral part of a state, and that the good of the state and the good of the individual were one and the same. Thus, he viewed education as a public good, and believed that it should be the same for all citizens (Aristotle, 1984). Furthermore, Aristotle believed the State could rightfully demand the loyalty and respect of its citizens, who profited from its care, and that a the needs of society would often override the rights of individuals (Noddings, 2011, p. 44).

In contrast, Rousseau (1979) thought that a man (for Rousseau the educated ‘person’ was a male) educated for the sake society would be an incomplete person – alienated, dependent, and denatured. A man educated according to nature, on the other hand, would become self-sufficient and complete. He would develop a sense of self worth, come to know himself, and learn to live a free and authentic life (Rousseau, 1979). According to Rousseau, humans were naturally empathetic, and this empathy, if allowed to develop unencumbered by the trappings and temptations of a modern society, would supply “the place of laws, morals and virtues” (Rousseau as cited in, Wolf, 1996, p. 27). Thus, Rousseau’s emphasis on the individual was rooted in his belief in the natural goodness of people.

Reason and emotion

Philosophers have also considered the role of reason and emotion in thinking and decision making – especially moral decision-making. Hume, for instance, claimed that, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (Hume as cited in Lara, 2014). By this, Hume meant that reason could comprehend the causes and effects of things in the world and help us in achieving certain ends, but it could not, in the absence of emotion, determine which ends, or goals, we ought to desire. In contrast, Kant argued that moral obligation “must not be sought in the nature of the human being or in the circumstances of the world in which he is placed, but a priori simply in concepts of pure reason” (Kant as cited in Lara, 2014). For Kant, universal moral principles were discoverable through reason, and human affairs ought to be guided by such principles. In education, an emphasis on the role of emotion in human thought and action can lead to approaches that prioritise social, emotional, and physical modes of learning. On the other hand, where reason is prioritised, emphasis is placed on the power of ideas to transform individuals and society. Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau took philosophically distinct positions on the role of reason and emotion in education.

Plato prioritized the role of reason in education, but did not overlook the importance of the emotions. In comparing a virtuous state to a virtuous individual, he identified three divisions of the soul: reason, spirit, and appetite. A virtuous person was one whose soul was in harmonious accord, where each part of the soul did that for which it was best suited. The rational part ruled, the spirit was subject to and allied with reason, and together reason and spirit presided over the appetites. The unjust individual, in contrast, was one whose soul was in conflict, where one or more parts of the soul attempted to perform the duties that rightly belonged to another (Plato, 1930). For Plato (1970), rational self-control was good, and a lack of it bad. In the Laws, he imagined a person as a puppet controlled by the Gods. The strings represented pleasure, pain, fear, confidence, and reason. Plato thought we should hold tight to reason – a gentle, pliant force – and allow it to guide us (Plato, 1970).

Aristotle (1984 translation) took a view similar to Plato. He believed that education should begin with habit formation, as this represented a natural and purposive order. He viewed soul and body as separate, and divided the soul into two parts, the rational and the irrational. Body existed prior to soul, and irrationality existed prior to reason. Therefore, according to Aristotle, “care of the body ought to precede that of the soul, and the training of the appetitive part should follow; none the less, our care of it must be for the sake of reason, and our care of body for the sake of the soul” (1984, p. 78). Thus, although it was important for Aristotle to train, or cultivate the body and the emotions, he thought a more important aim of education was the development of rational thinking.

Rousseau (1979), on the other hand, valued emotion over reason. He believed that, as God’s creations, people were born good, and became corrupted by society. He thought a child should be free to develop naturally by exploring the things he was interested in through hands on experiences. Children were, by nature, immature and incapable of abstract reasoning, so by insisting on reasoning with children teachers only alienated them, and taught them to become “dissemblers, fakers, and liars in order to extort rewards or escape punishment” (Rousseau, 1979, p. 426). A better approach, for Rousseau, was one that respected the nature of the child and adapted the educative process to meet the needs and interests of the child.

Knowledge and freedom

Beliefs about the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired have direct implications on what it means to be a free and autonomous individual. For some philosophers, knowledge is associated with a quest for certainty – a longing to know the world as it actually is, grounded in basic, self-evident truths and/or empirical evidence (Noddings, 2011). From this perspective, truth is seen as universal and independent of human minds. On the other hand, some philosophers reject universal truth claims, believing that ‘truth’ is more localised, emerging out of particular circumstances and reflecting particular sets of experiences (Noddings, 2011). If one believes that knowledge and truth are universal and objective – corresponding to an external reality – then possession of such knowledge is likely to be viewed as empowering and liberating, allowing one to make informed rational decisions about how to live. However, where knowledge is seen as diverse, and rooted in particular ‘lived’ experiences, then a belief that universal knowledge claims are neutral and objective can be seen as an imposition that marginalises and delegitimises diverse ways of knowing.

Plato viewed knowledge as abstract, universal, and unchanging. In a famous allegory (1930), he described prisoners who had been chained up in a cave their whole lives. Unable to turn their heads, all they ever saw were the shadows of objects as they passed across the wall of the cave in front of them. The prisoners mistook these shadows for the real objects, and believed what they were seeing was true. If a prisoner were freed from the cave and ascended to the real world above, they would become acquainted with the truth and not wish to return to the cave. For Plato, the physical world experienced through the senses was, like his cave, deceptive and shadowy. People could not rely on the truth of the things they perceived, or experienced, as their perceptions could be, and often were, mistaken. It was through reason that one ascended to the intelligible realm, and came to know absolute, immutable truths. The ascent of the prisoner represented the ascent of the educated person to the intelligible realm. Therefore, for Plato, it was through reason that one acquired knowledge and became free from deception and ignorance (Plato, 1930).

Aristotle (1984) like Plato, believed it was possible to know the world objectively, but unlike Plato he thought knowledge was acquired through both abstract reasoning and experience. For Aristotle, the body and the soul, which included the mind, were interconnected – one did not exist without the other (Saugstad, 2013). Where Plato distrusted the senses, Aristotle believed that our senses connected the mind with the external world, and were a reliable source of knowledge. Aristotle argued that individuals experienced the particularities of the world through sense perception, and through reason they made generalizations about those experiences and came to know the truth (Saugstad, 2013). Although Aristotle believed universal moral principles could be apprehended through reason, he also believed that knowing and acting were distinct, and that simply knowing how to be virtuous was different from being virtuous. To be wise, according to Aristotle, involved both knowing and doing (Saugstad, 2013).

Rousseau (1979) associated freedom with nature. Society corrupted and imprisoned individuals, subjecting them to arbitrary social norms and practices. It was through the exercise of individual autonomy, following one’s natural inclinations, and being true to oneself that one attained freedom. The authoritarian imposition of knowledge by a teacher was anathema to such freedom, and was to be avoided at all costs (Rousseau, 1979). For Rousseau, self-knowledge was the highest form of knowledge, and was acquired through quiet meditation, getting in touch with one’s feelings, and experiencing one’s true self away from the hustle and bustle of society (Storey, 2012).

2. The Emergence of the educated person

In many Western nations, changes brought about by the industrial revolution during the 18th and 19th centuries placed new demands on public education. With reference to the situation in the United States, Kliebard (1986) wrote that by the late 19th century:

Face-to-face communication was clearly in decline, and with the recognition of social change came a radically altered vision of the role of schooling. As cities grew, the schools were no longer the direct instruments of a visible and unified community. Rather, they became an ever-more critical mediating institution between the family and the puzzling and impersonal social order, an institution through which the norms and ways of surviving in the new industrial society would be conveyed. Traditional family life was not only in decline; even when it remained stable, it was no longer deemed sufficient to initiate the young into a complex and technological world.

These changes in society gave rise to various and conflicting views of what it meant to be an educated person in a rapidly changing, industrialized world. Kliebard (1986) identified four curriculum orientations that underpinned the various ideals of the educated person: humanism; social efficiency; child study; and social meliorist (1986). Other curriculum scholars have identified similar orientations. Schiro (2008), for example, named the orientations scholar academic, social efficiency, learner centered, and social reconstruction (2008, p. 10). The next section of this review discusses these curriculum theories, which continue to dominate educational discourse in the West (Schiro, 2008, p. 11), focusing on the different ideals of the educated person they have given rise to: the rational individual; the worker; the explorer; and the critical intellectual.

The rational individual

A rational individual was one who possessed a breadth and depth of powerful knowledge – knowledge that helped him or her to answer some of life’s most important questions, questions about truth, justice, and freedom (Newman, 1898; Orton, 1937; Peters, 1972). She or he was a skillful and effective thinker, civilized, cognitively and emotionally well rounded, and, most importantly, free from superstition, prejudice and ignorance (Newman, 1898; Orton, 1937; Peters, 1972; Wilson, 1996). This individual was familiar with the modes of inquiry, key concepts, and ways of thinking that were embedded in the academic disciplines (Eisner, 1979; Schiro, 2008), which represented humanities storehouse of accumulated wisdom, and which contained powerful forms of knowledge that had evolved over time as history’s greatest thinkers had struggled to understand their world (Adler, 1952; Eisner, 1979; Hirst, 1974; Schiro, 2008).

The rational individual was depicted as autonomous, and free form the irrational and arbitrary prejudices contained in social customs and traditions. From this perspective, the uneducated person was viewed as intellectually immature, uncivilized, ignorant, and subject to irrational social, cultural and political influence. Since the early 20th century, most writers who promoted the idea of the rational individual, claimed that all people had the potential to become educated, and that each person had a right to such an education, as it was a means of attaining individual freedom and political autonomy (Adler, 1952). A further assumption that informed this ideal of the educated person was that all people, by virtue of being human, were concerned with the same fundamental questions, “questions that deal with what is good, what is beautiful, how life might be examined, and the like” (Eisner, 1979, p. 111). Being rational, therefore, enabled one to live a free and autonomous life.

A well-known proponent of this ideal, Mortimer Adler (1952), believed that education proper began in adulthood. Schooling provided training for children, and only adults were fit for education. Education – the cultivation of the intellect – required experience – life experience, suffering and responsibility, and therefore was reserved for free and responsible citizens. Children were not mature – they lacked seriousness, and they had not had sufficient experience to be educated. Education for adults was voluntary, conducted amongst equals and interminable (Adler, 1952). The great books represented the best course for adult education as they were written for adults, were inexhaustible, and treated of fundamental problems (Adler, 1952). The ultimate aim of education, for Adler, was wisdom, which took a lifetime of learning to achieve. Wisdom was understanding, “comprehension of the human situation, of the conditions of our lives, of the word in which we live” (Adler, 1952, p. 66), and the ability to “know better the difference between good and evil” (Adler, 1952, p. 66).

For the rational individual, reason was thought to be superior to the emotions. Peters (1972), for example, believed that reason differentiated the emotions. He pointed out that whether someone was angry or jealous was determined by what she or her believed about some situation or event. If, for example, a person believed someone had harmed her she might feel angry. However, if she believed that someone had acquired some good that should have been hers, she would feel jealous. Peters wrote:

If, therefore, we are contemplating bringing about changes in people’s emotional attitudes or reactions, our main task consists in getting them to see the world differently in relation to themselves. The eye of the jealous man must be made less jaundiced by altering his concept of what he has a right to, or by getting him to see the actions of others in another light. We speak of ‘education’ because of the work that has to be done on his beliefs (1972, p. 61).

For the rational individual, knowledge represented objective reality, but it was not simply an accumulation of inert facts stored in memory. Knowledge formed webs of interconnected meanings, which were integrated deeply into an individual’s moral and spiritual outlook on life (Newman, 1898; Schiro, 2008; Wilson, 1996). Furthermore, for most writers who espoused this ideal of the educated person, knowledge was to be valued primarily for intrinsic reasons, freedom from ignorance, the enrichment of mind, and a deeper understanding of the world and one’s place in it.

There was often a connection made between knowledge of the good, justice, and morality. Wilson, for instance, argued that universal moral principles were discoverable by reason, and that a morally educated person was one whose morality was guided by reason, rather than by religious doctrine or other forms of authority (Wilson, 1996). He believed many societies failed to produce morally educated individuals because they tended to inculcate values that promoted law and order, that served the needs of the economy, or that transmitted religious ideology (1996). He suggested that a search for “a publicly agreed and rational concept” of morality would threaten peoples’ deeply held beliefs and psychological security (Wilson, 1996).


This ideal of the educated person has been criticised for being elitist. The rigours of academic study were seen as too demanding for the majority of learners, and therefore a curriculum designed to produce the rational individual served the needs of a minority only, alienating the majority of learners (Fenstermacher & Soltis, 2009; Schubert, 1996). According to Noddings (2004), the ideal of the rational individual was based upon the assumption that “the best education for the intellectually best is the best education for all” (Noddings, 2004, p. 166). This assumption however, privileged a narrow range of human excellences, failing to acknowledge the wider range of activities that people engaged in throughout their lives (Noddings, 2004). Objecting to a system of education that judged all learners according to a narrow academic ideal, Noddings wrote: “There is more to life, more to excellence, more to success, and more to devotion than can be captured in a single intellectual model of excellence. To provide an equal quality of education for all our children requires, first, that we hold the variety of their talents and legitimate interests to be equally valuable” (2004, p. 167).

Jane Roland Martin also thought that the ideal of the rational individual was too narrow – constrained, one-dimensional, cerebral – and that it marginalized more subjective, personal forms of knowledge. Martin (1985) believed the ideal of the educated person needed to emphasize practical knowledge, and the values of caring. She drew a distinction between the productive and reproductive worlds, one public and the other private, arguing that a traditional conception of the rational individual rested upon fundamental dichotomies, mind from body, and productive from reproductive processes, which lead to alienation and the development of lop-sided individuals (Martin, 1985). The reproductive realm, and the feminine values associated with it such as care, connection, and intimacy, needed to be valued and incorporated into the educative process (Martin, 1985). These values were central to all subjects, even science, as intimacy, care, and compassion contributed to scientific endeavors in the real word (Martin, 1985).

Likewise, Mulcahy (2009b) suggested that the ideal of the educated person as a rational individual needed to shift from a lop-sided, ivory tower person, to a multifaceted person – one who was able to “deal with a wide range of practical demands of living in the workplace and other settings and relate sensitively to others” (2009b, p. 482). Consequently, the content of a liberal education would need to expand, placing more focus on practical knowledge, and emotional cultivation. Mulcahy also believed that the ideal of the educated person needed to reflect pedagogical realities (2009b, p. 482). He wrote: “Not only does good pedagogy excite and motivate, it…revolves around the lives and interests of students, not pre-established curricula or testing regimes” (2009a, p. 293). Mulcahy envisaged a more balanced ideal of the educated person, acknowledging, to some extent, the value of academic knowledge, but infusing his ideal with an emphasis on meaningful individual growth, and respect for the practical demands of life in society, especially the demands of an advanced capitalist economy.

The worker

The worker was viewed as someone who effectively contributed to society as a ‘responsible’ citizen, a consumer, and a producer. They possessed the knowledge, skills, and competencies to live productive lives at work and at home, in a manner that reflected and maintained shared social values (Eisner, 1979; Fenstermacher & Soltis, 2009; Kliebard, 1986; McNeil, 1996; Schiro, 2008). They were valued for what they could do for society more than what they knew about the world, or how personally meaningful their lives were (Eisner, 1979; Schiro, 2008). Proponents of this ideal often assumed that what was good for society was also good for the individual, and that happiness could be measured objectively in relation to health, wealth, and social status. From this perspective, the ‘uneducated’ person was viewed as an adult-in-the-making, someone who could be adapted to meet the future needs of society (Schiro, 2008).

Like the ideal of the rational individual, the ideal of the worker also became more refined during the late 19th and early 20th century (Kliebard, 1986). Powell (1909), for instance, argued that an increasingly industrialized world placed new demands on young people, especially employment demands. The ‘educated person’, he thought, was one who enjoyed a happier, healthier, and longer life, and who was likely to influence society and gain distinction. Such a person would be skillful, able to do more things, do them better, and be prepared for scientific training (Powell, 1909). Likewise, Snedden (1912) argued that, in the context of an industrial society, education should cultivate producers and discerning consumers. Consumers able to judge of quality and make wise decisions about which products to buy, so as to avoid “lowering the standards of production” (36) and, consequently, harming society.

Contemporary writers criticised this older, industrial, approach to education, while promoting a new vision based on precisely the same principles. Sherritt and Basom (1996), for example, argued that in the late 20th century the world had changed drastically, and education needed to change with it. They criticised what they viewed as an outdated approach to education that aimed to produce citizen workers for an industrial age, and argued that today’s educated person needed to be able to work successfully in an information age. They needed to be able to solve problems, continue learning and retraining throughout life, use technology, deal with information, be invested in their work, self-directed, responsible, and able to communicate across cultures (Sherritt & Basom, 1996). Although the particular skills and competencies had changed, the educated person was still viewed as someone capable of meeting the social, and, more specifically, the economic demands of society. Sherritt and Basom (1996) also emphasised the role of the educated person in sustaining their society’s competitive edge in a global economy:

“The education imperative is, and always has been, to become consonant with the requirements of the historic moment, not remain constant with the requirements of an earlier time…If during the information age, public education trains good factory workers and universities educate liberal scholars in the grand tradition, America will lose its preeminence. We are, in fact, beginning to see this trend now” (1996, p. 5).

Some writers suggested that a liberal education was the best preparation for post-industrial workers. Gaff (2004) argued that there was an emerging consensus among business employers, and industry training organisations, that “what used to be called the ‘marks of an educated person’” (2004, p. 4) were central to successful performance in the modern world of work, where individuals were required to adapt, innovate, solve problems, and work with people from diverse cultures. Likewise, Drayton (2005) argued that as the citizen sector had become more productive and competitive, and as business and public sectors had become more integrated, new opportunities had emerged for the ‘educated person’ who was knowledgeable, creative, and intellectually skilled (2005). Drayton depicted his educated person as a change-maker, or social entrepreneur, who was committed to seeking out social problems and finding solutions. He believed that the entrepreneurial spirit was a strong integrating force in a globalised economy, where individuals competed with each other to find solutions to new and difficult challenges (Drayton, 2005).


The ideal of the worker has been criticized for perpetuating the status quo. By focusing on the skills and knowledge demanded by society as it is, or as it will inevitably become, the ideal normalizes and perpetuates existing social structures and beliefs. Criticizing the scientific rhetoric of the worker curriculum, Bode argued that this ideal ignored the possibility of developing a more just social order (Kliebard, 1986), and that basing curricular objectives on existing social conditions allowed curriculum developers to smuggle in existing biases, making the curriculum an “excuse for the perpetuation of tradition and the status quo” (Bode, as cited in, Kliebard, 1986). Likewise, Dewey felt the ideal of the worker was “profoundly political and social” (Dewey, as cited in Kliebard, 1986, p. 147) as it adapted learners to existing social and economic structures. Dewey stated that he “was not sufficiently in love with the regime” (Dewey, as cited in Kliebard, 1986, p. 147) to support such an approach.

A reaction against the worker ideal erupted in the United States during the Great Depression in the 1930s (Kliebard, 1986), a time when the dangers and inequities of a capitalist social structure were felt severely. Writing at this time, Counts (2004) depicted the contradictions of the existing capitalist regime:

Here is a society that manifests the most extraordinary contradictions: a mastery over the forces of nature, surpassing the wildest dreams of antiquity, is accompanied by extreme material insecurity; dire poverty walks hand in hand with the most extravagant living the world has ever known; an abundance of goods of all kinds is coupled with privation, misery, and even starvation; an excess of production in seriously offered as the underlying cause of severe physical suffering; breakfestless children march to school past bankrupt shops laden with rich foods gathered from the ends of the earth…An ideal of rugged individualism …is used to justify a system which exploits pitilessly and without thought of the morrow the natural and human resources of the nation and the world (2004, p. 31).

Not only did Dewey criticize the ideal of the worker for inspiring a narrow vision of learning that perpetuated the status quo, he also criticized it for producing a curriculum that was demotivating, and life denying. Dewey (1938) thought the idea that education was preparation for work was “treacherous” (1938, p. 47), because such a narrow focus would not lead to future experiences “of a more expansive quality” (1938, p. 47). Education of a purely vocational nature was “segregated” (1938, p. 47) and “disconnected form the rest of experience” (1938, p. 49). Where preparation for future work was the end of education, experience would be robbed of meaning. For Dewey, the use of the present to prepare for the future was a contradiction, as it was only by living a full and meaningful life in the present that one would be prepared to live well in the future (1938, p. 51). Dewey insisted on the rights of children to live personally meaningful lives freed from the demands of a society dominated by adult values.

The explorer

 The explorer was viewed as an active, self-directed individual who lived a personally meaningful life, and who grew continuously by reflecting on, and making sense of his or her experiences. Free from coercive influences, social pressures, threats, rewards, or punishments, the explorer searched for personal meaning, self-actualization, and a worthwhile life (Butterick, 1923). She or he was a whole person, cognitively, emotionally and physically integrated, and socially and culturally interconnected with diverse others in an open, democratic environment. For the explorer, knowledge was a personal construction, one that allowed him or her to understand and adapt to the world in a rich and meaningful way. Knowledge did not represent an objective, detached, or universal representation of an external reality (Schiro, 2008).

This vision of the educated person was closely associated with the ideas of the philosopher, John Dewey. Dewey (1938) contrasted the ‘old’ education, with the ‘new’, progressive, education. The old, he argued, treated education as “formation from without” (1938, p. 1), whereas the new treated it as “development from within” (1938, p. 1). The old applied “external pressure” (1938, p. 1) to shape the habits, and to transmit knowledge, which learners received passively. The new focused on the “the expression and cultivation of individuality” (1938, p. 5), learning through experience, and living in the moment (Dewey, 1938). For Dewey, the new education was more humane, and therefore, more in accord with the democratic ideal, whereas the old was “autocratic” (1938, p. 24), authoritarian, and harsh.

Democracy, Dewey believed, was justified in relation to experience, as a democratic way of life promoted “a better quality of experience” (1938, p. 26) for all. According to Dewey, “Mutual consultation and convictions reached through persuasion” (1938, p. 26) made possible a better quality of experience than any other form of social organization. Furthermore, he argued that all human experience was social in nature, and therefore “involved contact and communication” (1938, p. 32). The educated person was one who participated actively as a citizen in a ‘real’ world. An uneducated person, on the other hand, followed the dictates of habit and tradition blindly and inflexibly, cut off from the richness of experience (Dewey, 1938). The ideal of the explorer then, was rooted in a social order that evolved out of interactions among diverse individuals.

Influenced by progressive ideals, writers in this tradition called for a more expansive and flexible view of the educated person, one that reflected a diverse range of interests and experiences, and that placed greater emphasis on action and experience (Becker, 1985; Collins, Fischer, & Mac Murray, 1990; Mulcahy, 2008; Rich, 1980). Rich (1980), for example, criticized the idea that a liberal education should be conceived of as an intrinsic good, as this detached education from experience, and from the demands of the everyday world. He agreed that a liberally educated person was one who had systematically examined and thought deeply about significant questions, and who could “speak with some confidence and knowledge” (1980, p. 28) about such questions. However, he also emphasized the interrelationship between cognition, affect, and behavior, and argued that one could not develop knowledge of the world without acting on the world (Rich, 1980).

Focusing on the social, emotional and physical dimensions of experience, Becker (1985) argued that physical education, and the fine and performing arts should be fully integrated into a liberal arts curriculum. She believed that they contributed something essential to the educated person: “access to the realms of creativity, imagination, and feeling, that explore and enlarge the meaning of what it is to be human” (Association of American Colleges cited in Becker, 1985). Becker believed that the arts and physical education heightened consciousness and deepened ones knowledge of self. Furthermore, this could “happen on the playing fields, or in the swimming pool, or in the crew shell, as well as in libraries and laboratories and lecture rooms” (1985). Becker also thought that professional education should be integrated into the curriculum, making it more theoretical, and reflective, and allowing future professionals to locate the origin and purpose of their profession in a wider social, cultural, and historical context (Becker, 1985). Similarly, in promoting the centrality of physical education in the curriculum, Pascual (2006) defined education as “transformation…in every area – or ability – cognitive, emotional, motor/movement, etc., by means of experiences and valuable activities, with the aim of performing better in our personal and professional lives” (Pascual, 2006, p. 11).


According to Peters (1965), the ideal of the explorer rested upon faulty philosophical foundations. He acknowledged that progressivism, or the ‘child-centered’ approach, avoided the shortcomings of viewing education in terms of social or economic utility, but he believed some of the philosophical premises of the progressive approach could not withstand scrutiny (Peters, 1965). In particular, he questioned whether viewing the aim of education as ‘growth’ or ‘continued growth’ could make sense in the absence of some value judgment about the quality and direction of growth that was desirable (1965). For example, what if a learner grew into a skilful drug dealer, or criminal mastermind, would this constitute a good education?

For Peters, progressivism was a caricature of education, one that distorted the original concept, but, at the same time, highlighted some of its essential qualities (1965). For example, the progressive approach highlighted values intrinsic to the processes of education, such as a need to involve pupils as active participants in their learning. Like Dewey, Peters believed education could not be viewed as something that was imposed on a passive or unwilling recipient because it was a broad and cognitively deep process that required learners to comprehend meaningful connections with the knowledge they were acquiring (1965). However, Peters pointed out that Plato’s view of education, in contrast to Dewey’s, recognised the turning of the soul outwards, towards knowledge of ‘the good’, and that Plato also acknowledged the active role of the student (Peters, 1972).

The explorer ideal has also been criticized for prioritizing the needs of individual learners over the needs of society, for placing too much faith in children’s ability to choose wisely, especially where they lack sufficient knowledge, for placing too much emphasis on the natural, or innate, goodness of children, and for neglecting to transmit worthwhile – and empowering – subject-based knowledge. Addressing progressive educators in the late 1930s, Bode touched on all of these concerns:

The failure to emancipate ourselves completely from Rousseauism and the instinct psychology is responsible for most, if not all, the weaknesses of the progressive movement in education. The attitude of superstitious reverence for childhood is still with us. The insistence that we must stick like a leech at all times to the ‘needs’ of childhood has breed a spirit of anti-intellectualism, which is reflected in the reliance on improvising instead of long-range organization, in the over-emphasis on the here and now, in the indiscriminate tirades against ‘subjects’, in the absurdities of project planning, and in the lack of continuity in the educational program. It has frequently resulted in an unhealthy attitude towards children, an attitude which suggests that there is no such thing as a normal child, and that we must be everlastingly exploring his insides, like a Calvanist taking himself apart day after day to discover new evidence of sin (Bode, as cited in Eisner, 1979, p. 60).


The critical intellectual

The critical intellectual cared deeply about her community and worked tirelessly to root out injustice and to make the world an equitable place (Eiermann, 1997; Schiro, 2008; Staub & Ammerman, 1991; Valk, 2009). She understood that social, economic, and cultural forces shaped her life and the lives of others, for better or for worse. Through open, critically informed dialogue and social action she was able to empower herself and mobilize others against all forms of injustice, especially injustices related to class, gender, and ethnic oppression (James, 1998; Pring, 2009; Schiro, 2008). She viewed knowledge as “socially constructed, culturally mediated, and historically situated” (McLaren 2007 cited in Schiro, 2008, p. 168), and was aware that powerful discourses acted on and shaped her society, legitimizing some values and ways of life, while marginalizing and disempowering others (Schiro, 2008). Knowledge was neither objective, nor neutral; it was hopelessly value-laden, socially constructed, and relativistic (James, 1998; Le Heron, 1995). From this perspective, social consensus was a powerful force in determining social reality, and was central in bringing about emancipatory social change (coulter & wiens, 2008; Schiro, 2008).

The critical intellectual was a child of postmodernism. Noddings (2011) described postmodernism as a “mood” (Noddings, 2011, p. 156) more than a philosophy. She believed it represented an abandonment of the Enlightenment quest for absolute truth and objectivity, and a movement beyond faith in scientific progress (2011). Havel (2006) captured this mood when he described the postmodern world as one that was “crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself” (2006, p. 12). Postmodern thought, therefore, reflected the uncertainties of a world in transition (Havel, 2006), an increasingly complex, globalized and digitized world, a world in which traditional values and social relations were disintegrating, and being replaced by difference and differentiation (Havel, 2006). In postmodern thought there was a heightened awareness of cultural and religious diversity, an acknowledgement of cultural conflict, and a desire to legitimize diverse perspectives. According to Havel (2006), postmodernism was a feeling that “everything is possible, and almost nothing is certain” (2006, p. 15).

The ideal of the critical intellectual was influenced by the ideas of Paulo Freire. Like Dewey, Freire (2004) criticized ‘traditional’ modes of education, where teachers transmitted knowledge to students who were positioned as passive recipients of such knowledge. Not only was this thought to be demotivating, it was, according to Freire, alienating and oppressive. It propped up unequal relations of power between teachers and students, and perpetuated broader social inequalities by imposing a fixed view of reality on learners – a detached, limiting version of reality to which the learner adapted (Freire, 2004). For Freire (2004), the educated person was a historically, socially, and culturally embedded individual who reflected critically on, and transformed her world for the better. Such transformation, however, occurred in the context of an interconnected world, a world in which people worked together, dialogically, to build a more caring, and more equitable social order (Freire, 2004).

Writers in this tradition displayed a heightened sense of distrust for prescribed curriculum content, and often linked such content to the power of social elites and their and attempts to control, manipulate, and homogenise learners. Critical of elitist conceptions of media and theatrical art, Staub and Ammerman (1991) pointed out that each culture had its own values, which were manifested in the movement arts. Through the study of media and theatrical arts, learners could better understand human interchanges, and come to discover their place in the wider culture. Media and the theatrical arts were about motion and conflict, and revealed the diversity of ways different cultures communicated conflict through motion. They acknowledged that historical ‘facts’ were useful for better understanding one’s culture through comparison with others, but that celebrating and reconstructing one’s culture was far more important. They criticised the rational, academic vision of the educated person, suggesting it was elitist, and conservative, and labeled proponents of the view as “know-what’s-good-for-everybodys” (Staub & Ammerman, 1991, p. 8).

Espousing a similar view, Eiermann (1997) argued that learning the processes of video production enabled students to understand how the media produced and transformed culture. As students learned to critically analyze media products and produce their own they transformed themselves, reconstructed their culture, and developed as people. Media studies helped produce educated people, people who identified the ways dominant ideologies were reproduced through the media, and who knew that media products were manufactured representations, and not windows on the world. Learning the language of media was essential if individuals were to contribute to a free society, and to feel connected to an “intelligible ethical culture” (Eiermann, 1997, p. 3). Eiermann wrote: “In the video production laboratory there is a classroom community that can create a sense of the lack of reality in reality, and that may produce video products that shatter a few beliefs and keep alive the voluptuous dream of creativity by avoiding the simple linear logic of modernist ideology” (1997, p. 7).

For Valk (2009), the educated person was one who wrestled with the larger questions of life in order to deepen self-knowledge. This exploration was done in relation to one’s understanding of others. One had a ‘world view’ and way of life that was influenced by and embedded in experience. Likewise, other people were animated by different worldviews, which were grounded in their unique social, and cultural experiences (Valk, 2009). The educated person developed intellectual excellence, critical thinking, personal meaning, and understanding, by exploring and appreciating diverse worldviews (Valk, 2009).

Valk (2009) also noted that diverse religious worldviews were a legitimate part of the global, public sphere, but were often marginalized within the academy. He believed that people feared being alienated from their authentic selves. One’s identity, he argued, was grounded in social, cultural and individual experiences, which gave one a sense of meaning, and animated one’s life. As people lived in pluralistic societies, education needed to be broad and inclusive. The educated person was one who understood that worldviews affected all aspects of life and society, and that experience shaped peoples’ perceptions of what was real, valuable and meaningful. She or her would interact respectfully and productively with diverse others, and recognize that “the hard criticisms of fundamentalists, atheistic or religious, quickly lose credibility and relevance and that respectful dialogue builds trust” (Valk, 2009, p. 78).


Bowers (2012) argued that the ideal of the critical intellectual imposed a narrow, Western conception of what it meant to be an educated person. According to Bowers, at the heart of Freire’s critical pedagogy was the ideal of an educated person who was an “individually autonomous moral agent” (2012, p. 306). This ideal reflected a Western tradition that gave rise to and sustained “capitalist economic systems and technological innovation at the expense of local ecosystems, leading to inequitable social practices and the degradation of the world’s resources” (2007, p. 82). Bowers wrote:

A strong case can be made that even though the current generation of critical pedagogy theorists, such as Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren, now suggest that the multicultural nature of the world must be taken into account, and that we must address the economic basis of the ecological crisis, we can still see in their writings the main themes of both Freire and Dewey – which is the need to transform the world by relying upon an abstract Western epistemology that carries forward a number of misconceptions and prejudices that can be traced back to Plato’s Republic. Their emphasis on the efficacy of abstract theory in leading to a better world reproduces Plato’s assumption that rational thought, which only an elite can effectively engage in, is a more reliable source of knowledge than narratives, embodied experiences and the achievements of other cultures (2008, p. 327).

For Bowers, words were metaphorical, historically rooted, and not merely conduits of objective reality; they carried with them cultural misconceptions and assumptions – tacit and seldom recognised – that influenced people’s responses to the world around them. Although people frequently made individual political and moral decisions, those decisions were “not entirely a matter of autonomous decision-making” (2012, p. 307); rather they were circumscribed by “silences” (2012, p. 307) that reflected cultural values and “the limitations of the culture’s language” (2012, p. 307). In the discourse that produced the ideal of the critical intellectual the word ‘tradition’ carried the analogues of “backwardness, obstacles to progress and the pre-rational and pre-scientific” (2012, p. 305), and was often contrasted with ‘transformation’, which promoted the idea of progress rooted in scientific thinking, therefore promoting Social Darwinism and faith in technological progress at the expense of the preservation of diverse cultural traditions (Bowers, 2012).

Can the ideals be blended?

Although many educators subscribe exclusively to one of the ideals outlined above, many do not, preferring to combine aspects of the different ideals, or to prioritize different ideals depending on variables such as student needs, school context, subject matter and social trends (Schiro, 2008, p. 205). This eclectic approach is encouraged by a number of curriculum theorists. For instance, In Approaches to Teaching, Fenstermacher and Solits (2009) advised teachers not to be constrained by a single ideal: “Although you may have a preferred approach, situations will arise that call for you to make the preferred approach recessive, while bringing a different approach to the fore. Practicing and gaining expertise in all…approaches prepares you to function well in different school settings, with different learners, who are in various stages of development at any given moment and possess a huge diversity of temperaments, needs, and interests” (73). For Fenstermacher and Soltis, therefore, pedagogical decisions could, and should oscillate between the different ideals, depending on circumstances.

In contrast, Egan argued that each of the ideals were fundamentally incompatible, and where deployed simultaneously would undermine each other. For instance, the ideal of the worker prioritized the needs of society and tended to reproduce in the individual the practices, beliefs, and values of the existing culture, whereas the ideal of the rational individual encouraged a critical attitude that viewed the same practices, beliefs, and values as superficial and arbitrary. Likewise, the ideal of the explorer encouraged the development of the particular needs and interests of each learner, whereas the ideal of the rational individual emphasised the accumulation by all of particular bodies of knowledge. Furthermore, the ideal of the worker prioritised social norms, yet the ideal of the explorer guarded the individual from the same norms. Essentially, Egan argued that the ideals were founded upon fundamentally different and contradictory philosophical beliefs, and the more one ideal was implemented, the more it undermined the others.

Festernmacher and Soltis’s (2009) advice to teachers to oscillate between the ideals depending on contextual demands, was poorly conceived, as it did not logically address the tensions highlighted by Egan, and would likely foster inconsistent and ineffective approaches to education. Acknowledging this point, Kliebard (1986) warned that an eclectic mix of the different ideals often reflected a political compromise, which ultimately undermined the educative process. A political process wherein different factions competed to justify their curricular positions lead to what Kliebard (1986) labeled a ‘disjointed’ curriculum – one that was reactive and piecemeal, especially when compared to a more comprehensive and systematic approach to curriculum design grounded in theory and evidence. According to Kliebard (1986), disjointed curricula tended to be communicated through broad, ambiguous statements of aims and outcomes, which were formulated with little regard for practical attainability, time, and resourcing. Such incoherent curricula lead to “gaps in the democratic process: the lack of well-informed citizens who exercise wide participation, assume responsibility for starting social improvements, and have competency in the skills of political action” (Kliebard, 1986, p. 138).

Peters (1965) also acknowledged the incompatibility of different educational ideals, and suggested that some of the incompatibility was rooted in an inconsistent use of language. According to Peters (1965), the concept of the educated person as someone who was wise and rational, as well as cognitively, spiritually, and emotionally well-rounded, arose in a more distinctive form during the 19th century. In English speaking societies prior to the 19th century the word ‘education’ was used in a more general way to refer to all forms of child rearing, socialisation, training, nurturing, and instruction (Peters, 1965). However, during the 19th century it acquired a more distinctive overtone, one that was strongly associated with the life of the mind (Peters, 1965). In response to a demand for ‘education’ to produce trained technicians to support an industrialised society, educational theorists began to put forward a more refined vision of the educated person as someone who was intellectually cultivated and who possessed a breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding (Mulcahy, 2009b; Peters, 1965).

Confusion over the use and meaning of the word education arose, and often lead to confusion over the aims of education (Peters, 1965). In the mid 20th century, the word ‘education’ was still sometimes used in the older, more general sense, and thus conceived of in functional terms, as something that achieved extrinsic ends (Peters, 1965). Peters (1965) believed that is what people had in mind when they referred to the role education played in socializing the young, or improving the economy. However, he noted that education could also be viewed in relation to its intrinsic aims, which, in turn, were manifested in the form of ‘the educated man’. When viewed this way, the word education had written into it the notion of some kind of change for the better – it was conceived of as an intentional activity that led to the cultivation of “valuable states of mind” (Peters, 1965, p. 57).

For Peters, distinguishing between education as a general process and a specific one associated with the production of ‘the educated man’, was crucial when seeking clarity around the aims of education (1965). For instance, if education were thought of more generally as a process of training, socialization and instruction, then it could be defined as the cultural transmission of things considered valuable, and thus would be associated only contingently with the acquisition of cognitive content and skills, and only to the extent that these were valued by society. If this were the case, people in an industrial age might value education primarily for its social and economic utility. On the other hand, if education were defined with the ideal of ‘the educated man’ in mind, then the condition of being broadly and deeply knowledgeable and cognitively skilled would be intrinsic to the definition, and the idea of being educated would stand as an ideal (Peters, 1965). Thus, Peters, like Egan, identified contradictions between the different ideals of the educated person, and by critically deconstructing educational discourse attempted keep the ideals more clearly separated.

An alternative approach, one that navigates the waters between sheer incompatibility and aimless eclecticism, is to find an appropriate – philosophically justified – balance between the ideals, acknowledging and addressing the philosophical tensions. This is the approach taken by Dewey (Kliebard, 1986). Dewey (1938) warned against viewing the old, academic education, and the new, learner centered education as simple dichotomies – he stressed that the new was not simply a rejection of the old. It was important, he thought, to figure out the implications of the new, and to not jettison traditional practices uncritically, or embrace new ones haphazardly. For example, Dewey sought answers to questions such as, “What is the place and meaning of subject matter within experience?” (1938, p. 7), or, what role does the knowledge and experience of the mature play in the experience of the immature (Dewey, 1938)?

For Dewey (1938), experience and education were not synonymous. Unlike many of his followers, Dewey did not uncritically or slavishly follow the dictates of learners’ individual needs and interests (Kliebard, 1986). He insisted that some experiences could be ‘mis-educative’, or disconnected, dissipating learner’s energies, and leaving them “scatterbrained” (1938, p. 16). Some experiences curtailed or constrained the growth of learners, shutting them off from future experiences. Many of the experiences associated with the old education, according to Dewey, were of the mis-educative nature – disconnected, detached, and abstracted from the real world (1938), but that did not negate the value of the powerful knowledge contained in the academic disciplines – the challenge for Dewey was in connecting such knowledge to learners in in a meaningful way (Dewey, 1938). The most pressing concern was to discover “the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences” (1938, p. 16). In other words, Dewey wished to discover rich and meaningful experiences, which would feed into future experiences and promote continued growth (Dewey, 1938).


Plato and Aristotle perceived a symbiotic relationship between the individual and society. Rousseau, on the other hand, prioritized the individual, and elevated human nature above the dictates of society. Plato and Aristotle believed in the superiority of reason, whereas Rousseau viewed the emotions as good, and natural. Plato thought education should produce just and rational citizens. Aristotle thought it should enable citizens to make the most of their freedom, and Rousseau thought it should allow them to grow naturally into their authentic selves. The words of these philosophers reverberated in ideas about what it meant to be an educated person – ideas that emerged in distinctive forms during the 19th century. The rational individual, free form ignorance, lived a good, and moral life according to reason. The worker contributed efficiently to society’s social and economic wellbeing. The explorer followed the dictates of nature and grew into a well-rounded, actively engaged citizen, and the critical intellectual, freed from the influence of hegemonic grand narratives, took action to make the world a better and more equitable place. Whether the ideals contradict each other, and are fundamentally incompatible, or can be logically combined to produce an ideal balance, is a rich philosophical question that deserves further investigation.


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