education philosopher

Trade-offs, Conatrained People, and Localism, or, What Thomas Sowell Has Taught Me

Posted in Philosophy by KevinCK on September 26, 2009

It is not an uncommon question in intellectual circles: who has influenced your thinking the most? Nor is it sowelluncommon for people to struggle when attempting an answer. To think of the one individual thinker/author who has influenced your viewpoint the most is every bit as hard as thinking of the one single musician who you love to listen to the most. I have often struggled to give a concise answer to this question as there are so many thinkers that have influenced my viewpoints. But I have begun to realize that there is one thinker I DO draw on more often than any other in describing, defending, or reflecting on my views: economist Thomas Sowell.

While Thomas Sowell is an economist by trade, he is also quite the social theorist/philosopher and – quite rare amongst intellectuals whose work spans more than 15 years – his work forms a very coherent whole. In saying that his writings have influenced me more, perhaps, than any others, I think of three particular “propositions” he puts forwards and defends in his writings: (1) Human beings are fallible, limited in faculty and have natures that are changeable only to a certain degree; (2) as such, moral, political, and economic decisions are best seen as trade-offs between imperfect options rather than a search for the one perfect solution; (3) [also following from (1)], decision making is best done as locally as possible because decisions must be as informed by relevant factors as they can be, and this is best done by those closest to the problem situation. (more…)


A Delicate Balance: Finding a Middle Ground Between Caring and Adversarialism in Teaching

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, Teaching by KevinCK on September 23, 2009

In education, there is much talk about the value of the caring teacher. In particular, theorist Nel Noddings has been quite influential with her vision of the pedagogic importance of “authentic caring” (in contrast to “aesthetic caring”). Taking a cue from Dewey, and more directly, “humanistic” psychologist Carl Rogers, Noddings suggested that in “authentic caring,” teachers would embrace students as individuals in a nurturing, mutually respectful, and…well…caring relationship. In contrast, the teacher that only practices “aesthetic caring,” cares primarily about students performance on academic tasks and, according to Noddings, risks not appreciating students as individuals replete with contexts, desires, and lives that need to be individually nurtured.

I doubt that many could deny the power of a caring teacher and do not suspect that many teachers do not strive to see their students as individuals. But one of the major flaws I see with Noddings view of authentic teaching (besides the fact that for many teachers, seeing all students as individuals to be individually nurtured is impossible on numerical grounds alone) is that too much focus on “authentic caring” negates another important aspect of a teacher’s role: adversarialism. In other words, nurturing students and authentically caring about them may be good to a point, but another key role of teaching – a somewhat antithetical role – is the adversarialism between teacher and student.

Adversarialism – seems like a dirty and nasty word, yes? When we think of adversaries, we think of enemies. It is only the most sadistic of teachers who wants to be enemies with their students. But the word “adversarial” (“adverse” being its root) simply means “to be at odds with.” To say that a teacher and student are adversaries is not to say they are enemies, but simply to say that there will be times where the two have different goals. (Enemies are always adversaries, but adversaries need not be enemies.) Sometimes, the student does not want to learn x, but the teacher’s job demands that she push the student to do so. The student does not always want to take home homework (seldom does, in all likelihood) but the teacher knows that supplemental practice will be good for the student. When student and teacher have conflicting goals, they are adversaries. (more…)

The Pragmatism of Education: A Disagreement With Eric Jensen About Knowing Which “Why” Question to Ask

Posted in Brain-based learning by KevinCK on September 20, 2009

In his article “A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education,” (Phi Delta Kappan, Feb 2008, 89(6)) Eric Jensen moves to justify the idea of brain-based education from several critiques it has encountered over the last decade. One of Jensen’s favorite things to say in defense of brain-based learning is that “the brain is intimately involved in and connected with everything educators and students do at school. Any disconnect is a recipe for frustration and potential disaster.” As teachers teach kids and kids employ their brains in order to learn, teachers would do better to understand how the brain works rather than not.

I think this connection is fallacious and we can see this with one of many possible analogies: if I am a jazz critic, and jazz is only audible to me via soundwaves, then would I be able to critique jazz better if I understood the mechanics of soundwaves? If I am a driver, and driving can only take place when the engine works in such-and-such a way, will I be a better driver if I understand the mechanics of how engines work?

Related to this idea is Jensen’s idea that teachers will be better at what they do when they do not simply employ strategies, but understand why particular strategies are being employed:

Each educator ought to, “Here’s why I do what I do.” I would ask: Is the person actually engaged in using what he or she knows, or does he or she simply have knowledge about it without actually using it? Are teachers using strategies based on the science of how our brain works? Brain-based education is about the professionalism of knowing why one strategy is used instead of another.

I take much issue with this idea that teachers “ought to be professional enough” to be able to recount the neurological principles behind why they use certain strategies, let alone the idea that being able to do so will make them better at the craft of teaching. It is an odd assertion to say the least and, I think based on  a conflation of practitioners (who generally use sheer pragmatism as a measure of practices’ effectiveness) and researchers (who use causal explanations as explainers of theories’ truth content). (more…)

On Natural Inequality?: Huxley’s Rebuttal of Rousseau

Posted in political philosophy by KevinCK on September 20, 2009

There is much to be said in favour of the view that Rousseau, having got hold of a plausible hypothesis, more or less unconsciously made up a clothing of imaginary facts to hide its real nakedness. He was not the first nor the last philosopher to perform this feat. – Thomas Henry Huxley, “On the Natural Inequalities of Man” (309)

RousseauIf I had not doubted Rousseau before, and I had, having cats would have led me to doubt Rousseau. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is in large part known for his Discourse on the Nature of Inequality. In the book, he writes that inequality did not exist in humans’ “state of nature” but only came after society was invented and entered into.

Now why would cats make me doubt such a story? Well, even though my cats have “entered into society” (they sleep on couches rather than grassy plains, and eat processed food rather than raw meat), they are quite instinctual animals; their instincts give us a glimpse into their natural inclinations. And cats’ natural instincts know nothing of such concepts as fairness or equality.

In fact, right now , my cats are eating. I have to look over every few minutes to make sure that one cat doesn’t “kick the other cat out” of the room in order to eat their food. I’ve tried many times to let the three cats know that this is wrong behavior  – that each cat gets to eat only from her own food bowl – but the cats simply don’t learn this. I have also tried to “unlearn” their behavior of order establishing, with one cat being the most dominant and another being the most submissive, but again, too much travail. According to the several books I’ve read and websites I’ve consulted, cats are just naturally this way – territorial, opportunistic, caring not  a lick for equality.

It simply makes one wonder whether humans could also have been this way in their natural state. (Hint: science has been proving Rousseau wrong for years, as evidenced in such works as Lorenz’s  On Aggression.)

One of the best critiques of Rousseau’s work, though, was Thomas Henry Huxley’s essay, “On the Natural Inequalitythomas huxley of Man.” This is so, I think, not only because Huxley was a biologist every bit as good at philosophy as Rousseau was (better, I think).

To me, the most notable thing about Huxley’s critique is that he essentially turns Rousseau’s view on its head, arguing that equality is not something the establishment of society removed from nature, but something that it imposed on nature.

Huxley did not necessarily agree with Hobbes that humans lives in a state of nature were “a solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” war of everyone against everyone. Using the best anthropological evidence at the time, Huxley postulated the view – that has endured into today – that

The particular method of early landholding of which we have the most widespread traces is that in which each of a great number of moderate-sized portions of the whole territory occupied by a nation is held in complete and inalienable ownership by the males of a family, or of a small number of actual or supposed kindred families, mutually responsible in blood feuds, and worshipping the same God or Gods.  (324) (more…)

Can Virtue Be Taught? Reflections on Plato’s Meno Dialogue

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, Philosophy by KevinCK on September 18, 2009

The following (informal) reflection was composed as commentary for a graduate class in the philosophy of education –Critical and Interpretive Methods in Education Research – about Plato’s dialogue, Meno. For those unfamiliar, the dialogue  concerns itself with the questions asked in this post’s title: can virtue be taught? Plato, through the voice of character Socrates, concludes that virtue cannot be taught and is a faculty given by the gods (in secular language, it is inborn). I reprinted this reflection here as it may prove to some – okay, maybe only a handful – mildly interesting (no more than “mildly” though).


The question asked in Plato’s Meno dialogue is whether virtue can be taught. Quite rightly, the answer is in the negative (even though the evidence is quite flimsy, consisting only of the observation that no one bills themselves as a “virtue instructor”). But I think Plato could have framed the questions a bit differently, which may have given him a different answer; instead of asking whether virtue can be taught, he might have done better to ask whether virtue could be learned.

The big difference here is that asking whether x can be taught implies that there must be a teacher and a student. Asking whether something can be learned implies only that there is a student (life or experience may be a “teacher.”) To ask whether I was taught math is to ask whether an instructor instructed me in math. To ask whether I learned math is to ask whether I learned it, leaving open whether I was taught it by a math teacher or learned it myself either from a book or by some other means.

PlatoSo whether virtue can be taught is a far different, and narrower, question than whether virtue can be learned. We all recognize, I think, the rightness of Plato’s suggestion that virtue cannot be taught. We can imagine, and perhaps know examples of, someone being able to recite “rules” of virtue (be honest, be fair, etc) while not being able to, or having the virtue to, put these ideas into practice. From my own experience of teaching students with Asperger’s syndrome, I have seen students who knew certain ‘rules” of virtue but not be able to translate this into practice.

In this sense, virtue cannot be taught in the same way that musicality cannot be taught. One can learn about virtue or about music but still lack the ability to be virtuous or musical. This is in large part because knowing how to be virtuous, like knowing how to be musical, is partly instinctual. When a drummer “knows” when to insert a particular groove in a particular spot in a song, she will probably tell you that she is acting largely on instinct (though the groove itself may be learned, its application is a matter of judgment). In the same way, knowing when, say, when to protect a guilty friend in the name of honor, or give a friend up in the name of honesty, is a matter of judgment (though those two virtues of honesty and honor may have been taught). (more…)

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Against Compulsory Education – Murray Rothbard’s “Education: Free and Compulsory”

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, Politics of Education by KevinCK on September 17, 2009

We talk of how we are going to improve public education, what subjects to teach or not in public education, or how to teach certain subjects in public education. Rarely do we talk about the issue all of these questions presuppose: whether to have public education or whether it is the best way to educate children. If nothing else – and there IS plenty else – Murray Rothbard’s short essay “Education: Free and Compulsory” serves to offer up the seldom heard argument against public compulsory education.

There are roughly three arguments used in this book, each taking up about a third of the book:

The first section talks about pedagogical reasons why public compulsory education is not an ideal. Every child, it is noted, has different capacities, interests, and proclivities. Some are bright in mathematics and like bookish knowledge. Others are more creatively inclined, have no aptitude for math altogether, and are more comfortable with hands-on things. Others may really have no ability for academic kinds of knowledge whatever, but could be best served by technical training.

Public education, of course, is the antithesis of this: by its nature, it is standardizing and “averagizing” (in that, for numerical reasons, compulsory universal education cannot focus on differences, but only similarities). Additionally, public compulsory education ensures that students are not schooled in what their talents/interests are, or what their parents want them to learn, but rather what the state believes they should learn. (Why must high schoolers understand Algebra II? Because the government says it is a good idea.) (more…)

A Spirited Defense of Meritocracy

Posted in Philosophy by KevinCK on September 15, 2009

Increasingly, it seems, the word “meritocracy” is used as a pejorative. “Meritocracy” is generally thrown into sentences to connote the socially obnoxious belief in elites, unequal opportunity, and hard-nosed live-and-let-die social darwinism. As my title suggests, I am a meritocrat. Below is a defense of why I believe meritocracy to be the most just social setup. meritocracy, I argue, is just because it is the only system that sets a consistent set of rules for all and all alike.

Before explicitly defending meritocracy, we must do two things: (a) define “meritocracy” and (b) think about the opposite of meritocracy is. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, meritocracy means ” A system in which advancement is based on individual ability or achievement.” Thus, the negation of meritocracy is “a system in which advancement is not based on individual ability or achievement” (or “…should not always be…”).

Meritocracy is based on two premises: (a) people are not equal in aptitude, ability, work ethic, etc., and (b) roles/jobs are best allocated based on matching individuals to the tasks expected in them. The first premise is empirical; despite many attempts to deny or change the fact, inequality in attributes seems quite an intractable part of the human condition. (And even those who lament this seem cannot deny that it is certainly so in areas like athletics, artistic talents, etc.)

Premise (b) is ideological rather than empirical; it is a statement about what should be the case rather than what is the case. It is a statement of how things are best ordered and allocated. As such, premise (b) generally is what most people take issue with when speaking against meritocracy. While some do take issue with premise (a), generally finding a social explanation for inequality in order to make the case that the existence of not endemic to the human condition after all – premise (b) is the one must take serious issue with.

So, some may have more endowments(mental, artistic, physical)  than others. Why, the debaters ask, should this by the primary decider in allocating jobs, roles, and social deserts? Doing things the meritocratic way offers no real chance for people to transcend their classes and social stations. The poor may not be able to afford the same education as the rich, which leads to a perpetuation of the same social disparity we started with – the divide between the less educated (and resourced) poor and more educated (and resourced)  rich. (more…)

The Skilled Practice of a Practical Occupation: Why teaching is a craft before a science

Posted in Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on September 13, 2009

In a graduate class of mine, we have been discussing whether education is or should be a science. Towards that end, we have read a book called An Elusive Science, which profiles, as its subtitle states, the “troubling history of educational research.” The book’s thesis, delicately stated, is that education does not easily lend itself towards being a science and attempts to shape it thus end up taking away the holistic nature of education.

I see teaching not as a science, but as a craft. The reason I do so is reflected n the dictionary definition of “craft” that is this essay’s title: “the skilled practice of a practical occupation.” Compare that with the defnition of “science” -“the ability to produce solutions in some problem domain” – and we will begin to see why education seems more like a craft than a science.

The first reason to see education as a craft before a science is because education is irreducibly practical. “Pure” sciences are theoretical: they exist for knowledge first and action second. To the physicist or biologist, information about their subject is worth pursuing for its own sake. Education, of course, is irreducibly practical: any knowledge gained in the field, to mean anything, must be gained in order to help real teachers in real situations.

And here lies one of the biggest problems with calling education a science: teaching is more improvisational than those who want it to be a science could ever be comfortable with. When we say we want education to be a science, we use the word “science” to mean “an exact method or protocol designed to produce the best results.” When we say “Mrs. Walker has teaching down to a science,” we are saying “Mrs. Walker knows exactly what to do to maximize effectiveness in a systemic way.”

But anyone who has ever taught – I am pretty sure on this – knows that teachers who follow inflexible scripts tend not to be very great teachers. Teaching is an interaction between teachers, students and a whole host of variables (classroom, the social goings on of the students, chance events, etc). As such, the best teachers are those who do NOT treat education as a science, but as a partly planned improvisation. (more…)

Amazon Kindle as a Research Tool

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on September 10, 2009

At this point, I am about two weeks into my first semester of PhD. And if I did not love my amazon kindle before – of course, I did – I reallylove it now. I must recommend that anyone doing academic research get a kindle, especially grad students.

Here are some kindle tricks that I find very, very useful for research:kindle

Store my entire kindle library on one machine: this, of course, is self-explanatory. But I love the fact that I can buy a book for the kindle (or download a public domain site, or store PDF files) on my machine to about 1,000

Make and keep track of notes and markings: Like a regular book, I can make notes and highlights. But unlike a regular book, I never have to flip through pages and pages to find all of my highlights and notes. I can press “see my notes and markings” and I can see all of them lined up.

Search for any word anywhere in any book: For any book on my kindle, I can search for any word that appears in it, like an index but better. Once, for instance, I was looking for a quote I didn’t think to highlight. I remembered, however, one of the words I know had been used in the sentences (a word distinct enough that it wasn’t used very much in the book.) I searched the word and found the quote very quickly.

Download PDFs and other course readings to my kindle:  My professors often give us PDFs to read, or want us to read journal articles. If it is a Word document (.doc) , I can upload it directly to the kindle via a USB port. If it is  PDF file, I can convert it to kindle format (.azw) by e-mailing the document to a specially assigned kindle e-mail account (, and the document is reformatted in a matter of minutes and sent back to me. I then download it to my kindle via a USB port. That way,  I can read the documents from my kindle.

Now, lest people believe I am simply a kindle cheerleader, here are the two things I really don’t like about the kindle as a research tool.

Kindle operates on location numbers rather than page numbers: I understand why amazon uses location numbers rather than page numbers. With an option to increase/decrease the size of text, page numbers would make the reading awkward (though there have to be ways to address this problem). But not having page numbers means that it is a hugepain in the @$$ to (a) find out where the rest of the class is when they are reading from a certain page number (I generally have to simply listen to others read rather than read myself); and (b) there is, to date, no good way to cite kindle books in research papers. One can certainly cite a location number, but it would be impossible for someone to find this without owning a kindle first. This is a huge, huge drawback for amazon if they hope to penetrate the academic market!!


All in all, though, I find the kindle to be an amazing research tool. I have recommended it to others because it is so convenient for academic  research.