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Reproduced from 1988 Conference Proceedings, pp. 329-334 ã SCUTREA 1997


Philosophy and 'philosophies' of adult education

R.W.K. Paterson, University of Hull



Adult education should be viewed in its widest possible setting. Overviews derived from standardised belief-packages can have serious drawbacks. We need to distinguish between such 'philosophies' of adult education and the specialised sense of philosophy as an intellectual discipline which has a distinctive, if more limited, contribution to make.


When we act, we always act with some background knowledge of the situation within which we are acting. Let us call this background knowledge a 'cognitive map' of the situation in which we are acting. To act, to form plans, to take initiatives we need to operate with some kind of cognitive maps however rudimentary. This, I suggest, is not an empirical generalisation, but a logically necessary truth about the very concept of 'action'. We can mindlessly react but we cannot possibly act in a cognitive vacuum, since 'action' presupposes the ability to identify possible courses of action, to estimate their consequences, and to choose from among available options. And even in the simplest situations, the better our cognitive maps the better placed we are to take successful action. If we know the lay-out of the situation in which we find ourselves and the causal connections holding among its various ingredients for examples we can begin to take purposive steps because we are in a position to foresee outcomes and to balance probable costs against envisaged benefits.

More complex and sophisticated activities require wider, richer, and more accurate cognitive maps. Take the work of many professionals - legal and medical practitioners, social workers, central and local planners, architects, business and trade union leaders, scientists, parliamentarians, or educators. High-level professional work in such fields, particularly the formation of policies, increasingly requires a sensitive understanding of issues in a large number of diverse spheres of human life which will often be affected, directly or indirectly, by the decisions professionals have to make and the priorities they establish. The overview which professionals develop on their work will often necessitate an overview of what is, what might come to be, and also what practicably ought to be, going on in many different theatres of human activity which overlap with their own. I assume that a professional ought to be carrying out his work, not just as a competent expert, but also as an intelligent and responsible member of his society, and indeed of the human race.

Ideally, the cognitive map with which a professional operates ought to be as complete and comprehensive as possible. Of course the farther its horizons stretch, the less exact will be our knowledge of areas which are peripheral to our more immediate professional concerns. But a cognitive map on which whole areas are left blank will in some circumstances be worse than no map at all. In fact, however, we probably all do operate with some kind of general picture of how our own life-activity fits into a network of inclusive meanings, in terms of which we try to make ultimate sense of what we are about. Each of us has a self-image, some idea of how we are related to our fellow creatures, some conception of the social significance of what we are and do, and some conceptions though perhaps rather dim, of our standing as human beings in the wider universe. We judge ourselves, and feel that there can be some sort of value in what we try to achieve. A 'world-picture' is an appropriate name for so wide-ranging a perspective on human life and on the overall background against which we can view and assess the conduct of human affairs. Such a world-picture will be much more than a mare inventory; it will, indeed, also be more than a merely descriptive account of the empirical relations which hold within and between the natural, social, economic, and political domains. It may well contain patterns of religious (or anti-religious) interpretation; it will enshrine a view of human personality, of what it means to be human; and it will be permeated by many judgements concerning comparative value, judgements about what matters most, and what matters less, for individuals, society, and the human race, present and future.

Arguably, the resolve to examine the wider significance of our lives, to face up to what and where we are, is an integral part of the personal dignity we want for all human beings. We want people to be critical, reflective, choosing actors who take a conscious part in forming their own destiny, not just blind pawns moved about by unseen forces. And when we think of the cognitive maps needed by man and women who shoulder professional responsibilities, we may well feel that educators, perhaps above all, have a duty to try to arrive at a clear world-picture in the light of which they can come to perceive their educational functions more sharply and securely. Concerned as they professionally are with the promotion of knowledge and understandings and with fostering the development of human beings as free, responsible persons, educators have a special obligation to think carefully and critically about the meaning of their work viewed within the fullest possible context.

It is, then, intrinsically fitting that men and women working professionally in adult education should view their activities as taking place within the whole panorama of human life and its setting. But in addition, a clear and consistent world-picture has great instrumental value. By scanning the whole background, remote and near, we can come to detect hitherto unsurmised possibilities unfolding fresh opportunities of more challenging and creative work. Consider the ways in which our enhanced understanding of mankind's tantalising and fragile relationship to our natural environment has led to the development of educational work in the field of ecology and studies of the problems of environmental pollution, themes which would have held scant interest for our Victorian forefathers, locked as most of them were in world-pictures incorporating one or another narrow, arrogant version of human supremacism. And when we have established a more extensive range of general possibilities, we are in a position to distinguish between different types of specific objectives to which our resources can be directed, to select those which seem educationally most appropriate and reject those which are educationally incongruous or will lead into blind alleys. We develop a richer and truer range of insights and sympathies, and hence can come to revise our educational priorities. Consider the ways in which our greater insight into animal behaviour, and into our own more subtle animality, have recently contributed to the development of courses on ethology and programmes on animal welfare, or the extent to which the study of social history has displaced the study of the history of kings and queens. If re-examining curricular priorities is a basic element in all educational planning the more complete the perceived context in which we seek to determine our priorities the more rational will be our planning.

Other advantages will accrue to the adult educator who takes stock of his work from a viewpoint whence its distinctive place in man's life-within-the-world can be evaluated. When we can thus 'situate' our work, and thereby more clearly discern its wider implications, we are more likely to be animated by a greater sense of purposes because we are better able to recognise the connection of what we are doing with everything else we believe in. Moreover, we become better equipped to explain and defend our work, to justify its claims to public support and respect, when we can show how it bears upon the deepest interests and most far-reaching aspirations of our fellow individual human beings, of bur society, and of mankind as a whole.

Now when adult educators consciously situate their professional activities on a cognitive map which tries to embrace and do justice to all the main dimensions of human life as it is lived in its widest natural (and perhaps also supernatural) settings there can, I think, be no strong objections to referring to this guiding and structuring world-picture as a 'philosophy' of adult education. However, the term 'philosophy' here can give rise to a serious ambiguity, and I shall comment on this shortly.

In the meantime let us note that in the intellectual market there are always to be found a quite large number of ready-made world-pictures, carefully worked out, often in close detail, intelligently expounded and critically tightened up against all the more obvious objections, and pre-packaged for immediate use. While their contents often overlaps as with all other pre-assembled packages their vendors each try to make sure that their particular package is distinctive, indeed unique; and in the case of belief-packages it will be claimed, or at least insinuated, that what is being distinctively offered to would-be believers is uniquely true. Hence an adult educator can instantly become the part-owners or beneficiary, of a compendious belief-system, a 'philosophy', which will carry the prestige label of Christianity, Marxism, Pragmatism, Islam, Humanism, Existentialism, Physicalism, or whatever - each label with a special mark to indicate which of the sundry versions of these creeds is being used to confer authority on his judgements about adult education.

There are self-evident advantages in opting for a standardised belief-package. To work out a belief-system for oneself is an arduous and lengthy process, the results of which are always provisional. Although admittedly the initial choosing of any packaged set of items calls for some forethought, once we have settled on our favoured belief-package we shall at least feel ourselves exonerated from further time-consuming thought about its fundamental premises. But there are immense dangers. The whole transaction is just too easy. While of course any of the available world-pictures can furnish us with an overview or cognitive map in terms of which we can frame our educational theory and practice, they cannot all be true. Indeed most of them will be, and all of them may be, essentially false, and so the one we work with may be actually disorienting. In the efforts made its champions to protect their system against objections from different quarters, they will tend to understate data from realms of experience which seem to be dissonant with their master doctrines.

The result will be a world-picture which is admirably neat - but also suspiciously neat. Their thirst for internal consistency can degenerate into a passion for orthodoxy, lending itself only too readily to dogmatism, and perhaps ultimately fanaticism. Instead of helping to unite adult educators in a common cause, the outcome may be quarrelsome divisions stretching across the profession, in turn dividing actual and potential students. Two people of deeply differing opinions, both of whom are seeking the truth in a reflective, open-minded, self-critical spirit, welcoming suggestions as to where they may have made mistakes, can collaborate very fruitfully. But when each thinks that he knows the truth, and that the other is therefore essentially, fundamentally, irremediably wrong, each is all too likely to regard the other's educational efforts, methods, and policies with rooted distrust and even antagonism.

I should now like to make some comments on the epistemological status of all these world-pictures (whether standardised belief -packages or independently worked out) which offer to give shape and meaning to our role as adult educators. In particular we need to got clear about the relation between such 'philosophies' of adult education and philosophy in its more specialised sense as a well-established and distinctive intellectual discipline which can make its own useful, if more limited, contribution to our thinking about adult education.

The first point that needs to be noticed is that when we try to state our most fundamental beliefs about the world comprehensively and coherently, we shall inevitably find that our general statement is made up of propositions which belong to several quite different logical kinds. There will be empirical propositions, e.g. the propositions that we are mortal, that we have evolved from more primitive life-forms, and that the earth is not the centre of the universe. There will be value judgements, e.g. about what enhances the quality of life, and about what constitutes justice in human affairs. There will be arguments, inferences, chains of reasoning, e.g. arguments for psychological determinism based on the resemblance, between brains and computers, and arguments for the inextricably social nature of man based on our intrinsic ability to use language. And there will be metaphysical assertions about the overarching constitution of the world, e.g. that only physical objects and forces exists that the world is under the direction of a loving Creator, or that everything obeys unalterable natural laws. Thus any world-picture we operate with will be bound to be epistemologically composite.

In building up a systematic overview of the part which educational activities can play in human life, what contributions then, can we legitimately expect from philosophy, understood now as a specialised academic discipline with its own characteristic concerns and procedures?

Most contemporary practitioners of philosophy would agree that there are certain tasks which philosophy cannot be called upon to perform. Empirical facts have to be established, and empirical theories devised, by practitioners of the appropriate empirical disciplines, using whatever investigational or explanatory techniques they find to be most efficient - physicists, astronomers, historians, sociologists, psychologists, and so on. It is not for philosophers to challenge what physicists have discovered about electromagnetic radiation, what biochemists have discovered about chromosomes, or what economists advance as the causes of unemployment. Nor is philosophy a storehouse of value judgements. The moral philosopher is not the custodian of a body of moral truths in the way that a geologist is the possessor of a body of truths about the strata of the earth's crust. Certainly philosophers can make 'second order' contributions to our scientific and moral understanding, by subjecting various key concepts to logical scrutiny. They can analyse the features in virtue of which a theory is correctly deemed to be 'scientific' or the differences between value judgements and factual judgements. They can examine the concepts of 'evidence' 'proof'', 'explanation' and 'duty', 'fairness', 'merit'. They can test the logical structure of different scientific theories and systems of moral belief. But philosophers, qua philosophers, cannot possibly offer to supply now types of scientific data or to provide the detailed content of our developing moral systems.

Since philosophy is above all the theory and practice of logic, it should be manifest that philosophers do have great professional interest in the arguments, inferences, and chains of reasoning by which a world-picture is held together and by appeal to which its adherents claim that its conclusions are well grounded. This is, I hopes so obvious that nothing more need be said about this philosophical task at this stage.

Probably most laymen imagine that metaphysical questions fall exclusively within the province of philosophy. This would be to overlook the part which other branches of knowledge play. The relation of mind and matters, the existence of God, the universality of determinism - any clarification of such issues needs considerable input from physicists, neurologists, psychologists, theologians, and others, as well as from specialists in applied logic. If philosophers have a unique and indispensable role in the study of metaphysical questions, this is, first, because these questions often arise at the interaction of two or more disciplines (e.g. the mind-brain question), and the most difficult problem so often concerns possible logical relationships between data of radically different kinds. Secondly, philosophical analysis is necessary because metaphysical issues typically revolve round 'public concepts' rather than technical concepts governed by strict definitions laid down by some specialist discipline. Whereas there is little dispute about the standard meaning of such terms as 'radioactivity' or 'synapse', there are no generally agreed rules governing the use of concepts like 'free', 'choose', 'motive', or 'desire', which are central to the issue of freewill and determinism and cry out for logical analysis. It is understandable, therefore, that philosophy should be thought of as greatly concerned with the metaphysical problems which vex us. However, it is erroneous to suppose that these problems are the sole preserve of philosophers.

What, then, can be expected from philosophy as a specialist intellectual discipline by adult educators who are striving to perceive the ultimate significance of their work and to situate it on a comprehensive map of human experience and the human condition? How can philosophy help us in our search for a 'philosophy' of adult education?

First, I suggest, the practice of logical analysis can stimulate adult educators to think critically about their metaphysical assumptions. On the one hand, this can help save us from sluggishly taking a dull, lifeless positivism, with its narrow and myopic outlook on human aspirations, as the unexamined scenario within which we frame our educational objectives. And on the other hand, it can help induce adult educators who are Christians, Marxists, Jews, Humanists, or adherents of other belief-systems to look harder at their assumptions about the nature of life and to consider alternative perceptions more open-mindedly and sympathetically. Secondly, logical analysis can bring greater rigour to our discussions of educational epistemology. The much-flaunted concept of 'praxis', for example, has long been in need of a thorough logical overhaul. And if adult educators were more conversant with the work done by philosophers on the concepts of 'truth' and 'knowledge' many of the varieties of cognitive relativism which pass for profundity in our debates about the curriculum might quickly be seen to rest on several notorious logical fallacies.

Thirdly, there is our understanding of human nature. Are our students computers to be reprogrammed, sets of reaction-patterns to be modified by behavioural engineering, children of a loving Father, or private centres of consciousness each uniquely individual? These or other conceptions will influence our views of what is involved in 'teaching' and 'learning'. Without a closely argued philosophical underpinning, the plethora of contemporary data from socio-biology, artificial intelligence, humanistic psychology, and elsewhere will either engulf us or, more probably, tempt many of us into a timid, fluctuating, and shallow eclecticism. Fourthly, there are all the questions about the social role of adult education. For example, talk about adult education for 'social change' tends to beg a whole range of ethical and conceptual questions and stands in urgent need of elucidation. How can adult educators legitimately claim a political role not claimed or enjoyed by other professional groups? Should social changes be in the direction of greater material prosperity, greater individual liberty, or a fairer distribution (which is not necessarily equivalent to a more equal distribution) of wealth and power? Presuppositions need to be identified, distinctions drawn, and patterns of argument rendered completely explicit. Lastly, in the domain of educational value judgements a great deal of conceptual analysis needs to be done. Plainly the concept of 'education' itself enshrines value judgements. So does the concept of 'adult'. One other example must suffice. In constructing a worthwhile curriculum many complex and diverse value judgements get made, and attempts to mask these value judgements by relativising them call out for exposure, since a necessary condition of rational curricular planning is that we should be lucidly aware of the priorities we are in fact accepting.

I have argued that we do need a 'philosophy' of adult education. But adult educators for this reason need philosophy as a conceptual discipline. A 'philosophy' of adult education purports to be a body of guiding truths. Academic philosophy, rather than offering such a body of truths, provides instead the logical tools by which 'philosophies' of adult education can be continuously monitored. All 'philosophies' of adult education embody important presuppositions, some eminently reasonable, others highly debatable. Academic philosophy is the critical examination of presuppositions and, perpetually subjecting as it does its own procedures to criticism without limit, can alone of all disciplines be regarded as totally presuppositionless. Thus understood, I suggest, philosophy is not the resting-place, but a permanently necessary accompaniment, of all intellectually responsible inquiry into the nature and aims of our work.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 29 May 2003