This essay was rewritten from Gary K. Clabaugh & Edward G. Rozycki
Understanding Schools: the foundations of education (New York: Harper Rowe, 1990) pp. 551- 564.

1999 Edward G. Rozycki

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 edited 1/2/19
See related articles:
Teaching Philosophy to Teachers
Case Analysis for Philosophical Consensus
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Generative Schemata: from question to thought to answer





Preview: Educators confront philosophical issues on a daily basis, often not recognizing them as such. They tend to deal with these issues unreflectively, perhaps overlooking alternative ways to handle them.
Our concern in this article is to open up inquiry into these daily issues. The focus will be on critical philosophy to uncover criteria that support educational judgment.

Three Conceptions Of Philosophy

We should never be ashamed to approve truth or acquire it,
no matter what its source might be, even if it might have come
from foreign peoples and alien nations far removed from us.
To him who seeks the truth, no other object is higher in value.
-- Rasa'il al-Kindi (810-873) Arab philosopher and physician

As a matter of daily practice, educators formulate goals, discuss values, and set priorities. Anyone who gets involved in dealing with goals, values and priorities soon realizes that in a modern society such as ours there are many competing choices. Some are incompatible with others. Hard decisions have to be made. Here, for example, are some everyday dilemmas that educators confront: How do we treat a specific student's needs, yet deal fairly with a class of students as a whole? When, if ever, should we bend the rules? Should a teacher ever emphasize good behavior over subject skills?

It is in trying to resolve such questions that the discussion becomes philosophical, even though it may not be recognized as such. And it is philosophy that can help us make better choices among goals, values and priorities. But what exactly is this "philosophy?" And how does it help?

In daily use the term, "philosophy," is not clear-cut. TV programs offer us the personal philosophies of various religious or political leaders. Other people talk about their philosophy in choosing a kindergarten or a college. Some people believe a difference in philosophy distinguishes between Roman Catholic and public schooling practices. Still others talk about Progressive or Back-to-Basics philosophy.

We see then, that the word "philosophy" is vague, yet, asking someone for her philosophy on something is different from asking her how she feels about it. "How do you feel about divorce?" we ask. "I don't like the idea," comes the reply; "but my philosophy on divorce is that you have to consider whether it might not be better to give up rather than stay in a bad relationship."

What, then, is philosophy? To shortcut discussion we can borrow distinctions made by philosopher John Passmore 2 and separate out three common conceptions of philosophy: philosophy as wisdoms; philosophy as ideology; and philosophy as critical inquiry. These distinctions help us sort out different traditions within what is called philosophy by the man-on-the-street (although only critical philosophy is understood to be philosophy in Passmore's own academic tradition).

Although three conceptions of philosophy can be distinguished, there are many common elements shared by them. A person may derive an ideology from a wisdom, and then subject it to critical philosophy. A truth discovered through critical philosophy may come to be uncritically venerated, as, for example, was the insight in America that education should center on the child. The three conceptions of philosophy, in practice, are found in a mix in the day-to-day practice of the schools. Almost every major philosopher in the critical tradition -- famed philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Kant and others2A -- have had much to say in the way of wisdoms about education and much in the way of ideology to say about how we should go about schooling.

Our primary interest in this essay is in philosophy as critical inquiry. Wisdoms and ideologies are usually inculcated into us in a way which gives us little opportunity for reflection and criticism: we are taught them as absolute truths as children. But critical philosophy, as we will see, is characterized by an attitude of critical reflection and a practice of analysis that inculcators of wisdoms and ideologies avoid. However, wisdoms, ideologies and critical inquiry are intimately and importantly related, especially in educational practice. Let's examine more closely the difference between these three ideas of philosophy and how each relates to educational practice.

Philosophy as Wisdoms

Philosophy, however one conceives it, is expected to be more than a passing feeling or a kneejerk opinion. It's supposed to be a thoughtful response to a question or situation. The response may not be very extensively thought out, but it's got some element of reflection in it. Philosophy as wisdom incorporates, at the very least, this notion of reflection, of thoughtful response.

This conception of philosophy as wisdoms includes two related ideas: personal reflections on broad questions, and prophetic wisdoms. Such philosophy is generally seen as arising out of personal experience or as having sacred origins. For these reasons we tend not to challenge them with a critical question such as, "How do you know that?"

For example, you have probably read or have heard people say things like

a. You can't expect too much from life without being disappointed sometimes; or

b. Live and let live, that's what I say;

c. Don't smile until Christmas (common advice to new teachers).

Such statements are thought to be philosophical. They are general, they are often offered as reasons for acting, and they have a certain air of thoughtfulness about them. We generally concede people the right to these sorts of reflective opinions and do not press them for further justification.

Then there are the statements or writings of prophetic individuals many of us have been taught to consider both wise and worthy of veneration:

a. Do not covet the favors by which Allah has exalted some of you above others. (Koran, Women 4:30)
b. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. (Exodus, 20:16)
c. Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. (Proverbs, 22:6)

Such wisdoms form the core of religious movements and are treated as sacred scripture. It is important to notice that when people offer philosophy in the form of sacred writings they do not welcome challenge. Indeed, a questioning or skeptical attitude is often thought to be rude or even blasphemous. Similarly, in education we frequently encounter some statements so deeply embedded in schooling culture that they are treated as religious fundamentals. For example:
a Every person should be educated to his or her fullest potential.

b. Always treat a child so as to bolster his or her self-esteem.

c. Practice makes perfect.

Philosophy as Ideology

Philosophy can also be thought of as ideology. An ideology is, by comparison with wisdoms, a more highly organized body of opinion. It usually serves programs of action and organizational needs. Philosophy as ideology is what we normally find in schools. For licensing purposes, state departments of education require schools, public and private, to have available a document that states the school's "philosophy" of education. Significantly, such school philosophies can be acquired pre-packaged. Educational accrediting agencies publish books of them that school planners and directors can use to choose among different philosophies of education like so many items on a menu.3 Here is an example of such an educational ideology:

The social development of elementary school students proceeds as the child becomes aware of the various authority structures that operate throughout the school, the community, the region, and the nation. We believe the school must help the child establish a perspective on the responsibilities and opportunities inherent in the multitude of authority systems in a democratic social order.4

The point of ideology is to provide extensive suggestion as to how to structure and control an organization. This may be subject to debate. Although the example above mentions a "democratic social order," given its emphasis on authority, one could imagine that with this ideology, a school run like a miniature police-state could be rationalized.

In developing an ideology, the wisdoms of individuals, prophetic or otherwise, is called on to justify policies and day-to-day procedures. But did Moses, Jesus or Mohammed ever talk or write about hall passes, or detentions? No. What philosophy as ideology requires is an imagination that stretches the original intents and statements into broader or novel applications. Sometimes this imagination goes far beyond any reasonable interpretation. Indeed, deeply pious people may complain that the ideology of a church organization violates the essential spirit of the prophetic teachings, as when they complain that teachers in their schools fail exercise forgiveness as often as they should. A key point here is that organizational demands often substantially change the spirit of the original philosophy. Deep moral concerns may be lost in service of expediency.4A

Philosophy as Critical Inquiry

The American Philosophical Association, which represents professional academic philosophers in the critical tradition, characterizes the activities of philosophy this way:

Properly pursued, philosophy enhances analytical, critical and interpretive capacities that are applicable to any subject-matter, and in any human context. It cultivates the capacities and appetite for self-expression and reflection, for exchange and debate of ideas, for life-long learning, and for dealing with problems for which there are no easy answers.5

The distinguishing characteristic of philosophy as critical inquiry is its focus on careful questioning and systematic appraisal, with no special respect given to the sources of the opinions examined. It doesn't matter who said or wrote what. Nor does it matter what effect critical inquiry might have on an organization. The point of the activity is not to honor individuals or to bolster organizations, but to try to get to the truth.5aa.

Most importantly, in philosophy as critical inquiry, any statement purporting to be truth is challengable. But what are the rules for making such a challenge more than just an expression of dislike? What rules there are have been developed through millennia in a literature tracing back to Plato and earlier. We will look more closely at these rules for challenge and investigation later.

Assumptions of the Tradition of Critical Inquiry. Early on in critical philosophy, Greek philosophers distinguished between what they saw as "received opinion" and "truth." This distinction mirrors the difference between what we are calling wisdoms -- and their derived ideologies -- on the one hand, and critical inquiry on the other. Received opinion might be true, but it was the task -- those ancient philosophers believed -- not of traditional or religious authorities but of critical analysis to determine if it was so. There is a potential here for significant conflict. It is important that a central story in the history of philosophy is that of Socrates. He was condemned to death by the Athenian Court for "impiety" and "corrupting youth" by teaching them critical inquiry.

To emphasize an important point, however, critical inquiry is not confined to the irreligious. The tools of critical inquiry have long been recognized as useful by religiously committed philosophers in their struggle with the wisdoms of competing religious groups. There are recognized critical philosophers in many major religions. Islamic, Jewish and Christian philosophers have practiced in the tradition of critical inquiry.

Philosophy as critical inquiry treats knowledge as tentative. For practical purposes we might accept something as true, yet later change our mind if the evidence warrants. Notice how different this is from the conceptions of philosophy as wisdoms or ideologies. Wisdoms and ideologies present what they offer as absolutes. Those who offer us such absolutes insist at some point that inquiry must stop, questioning is no longer allowed.5A Critical inquiry, by contrast, will always -- in theory, at least -- allow questioning to proceed. For critical inquiry it is not acceptable to say, "This is so because I (or my prophet) says it is." Something different is required. These are reasonableness and evidence. What this specifically means, we will see later.

To reiterate, just because something is commonly believed to be true, is not considered in critical philosophy to be an adequate reason for accepting it. Since it is method, not personal authority that establishes truth, critical philosophy does not encourage us to become followers, or true believers. Rather, each person is required to think for himself or herself, following certain procedures which do not prejudice the outcome. Educators are well-served by learning these procedures, especially in a pluralistic society like ours where so many wisdoms and ideologies compete.

How does critical philosophy help with educational decisions?

We live in a society where wisdoms and ideologies compete. Educators must be able to fairly select among them in a way which they understand to enhance their practice. Such a selection among competing wisdoms should be as reasonable and as unbiased as possible. Critical philosophy has at its disposal a wide variety of tools for analyzing and appraising educational debates. Educational disputes in our society tend to be particularly ideological. Practitioners need tools which are neutral to these disputes in order to deal with day-to-day problems in schools. Here, for example, is a list of the kinds of questions educators confront on a day-to-day basis, and, in effect, decide upon, whether thoughtfully or not

1. Should a talkative student be silenced for the sake of the class?

2. Should student infractions of the rules ever be overlooked?

3. Should grading be based purely on achievement or should effort be factored in?

These first three questions bring up the issue as to how the needs of individuals should be balanced against the needs of managing a group. Philosophy as ideology provides answers here; but there are competing ideologies. Philosophy as critical inquiry enables a reasoned choice. There are many other questions of similar importance that raise other philosophical issues. Consider these, for example:

4. Should students be taught to tolerate those things their parents believe are immoral?
This question comes up, for example, when sexual preference or practice is a curriculum issue.
5. Should a teacher always follow administrative policy?
This may be an issue of how to handle a conflict between personal morality and school rules. The many wisdoms and ideologies of our pluralistic society offer competing, even contradictory answers to such questions. For question 5, for example, one ideology might state that a teacher's primary duty is to the school and the policies that govern it; therefore, the teacher should always follow policy. Another ideology might hold that the needs of the child come first in any educational organization, therefore, there will be occasions when policies have to be ignored. Who is to say which of these two ideologies is better and why? Critical inquiry gives us the tools to answer this question.


Critical philosophy is multi-faceted and always evolving. But because of its educational utility, we will focus on a major emphasis of critical philosophy: philosophy as criteriology, the study of the sources, justifications, and forms of criteria for decision-making. Educational criteriology preserves the commitments of the critical tradition in that its inquiry is not restrained by any of the absolutes recognized by traditions of wisdom or ideology. And for educators, educational criteriology provides a powerful tool for decision-making amidst a plurality of competing wisdoms and ideologies.

Most, if not all, of the big educational questions can be recast as questions about the choice of criteria for decision-making. Consider the following chart which recasts vague philosophical questions into questions about criteria. Questions about what something is are replaced with questions as to how we identify, determine, recognize or know something.

General Questions Recast as Questions of Criteria

1. What is the primary goal of education? 
1. What criteria can we use to identify educational goals? What are the criteria for ranking them? Why those and not others?
2. Should individual needs take precedence?  2. What are the criteria of need? What are the criteria of precedence? Why those and not others?
3. What should be taught in the schools?  3. What criteria should we use to identify possible school subjects? On what basis would we select some over others?
Chart 1

Note that there can be several ways of formulating questions of criteria, for example: from the question, "What is academic achievement?" we can easily form "What are the criteria by which we identify academic achievement?" But rather than always using the formulation, "What are the criteria by which we identify ..." we can use such common variations as,

a "What makes something an academic achievement?" or

b. "How can you tell when something is an academic achievement." or

c. "What are the standards that define academic achievement?" or

d. "What are some conditions necessary for being an academic achievement?"

e. "On what basis do we decide that something is an academic achievement?"

Remember: an important reason for reformulating the questions is to help us identify not only criteria, but to enable us to ask "Why these criteria rather than some others?" Our concern is not only with criteria themselves, but with their sources and justifications.

Limiting the possibly broader scope of critical philosophy to educational criteriology is a cautious way to start. However, it avoids some of the common pitfalls of a broader conception: vagueness and consequent inapplicability. When the need arises to broaden our conception, we will. But simple beginnings are, perhaps, best.

For addition explanation, see
Evaluating Missions Statements


We will see that questions of criteria, their source, their form and their justification penetrate deeply into the philosophical questions that daily educational practice gives rise to, e.g. such questions as:

1. What difference does an educator's philosophy make on the job?

2. What conflicts might exist between a school's and an educator's philosophy?

3. Who should decide how to make educational decisions, and why, i.e. who has authority? Why?

4. What philosophical ideas have had an effect on school decision-making?

5. How can we justify intervening in another person's life?

6. What criteria should we use to identify learning? Teaching? Does teaching cause learning?

7. Can a school be unfair to some students without intending to?

8. What are needs? Should teachers pay attention to student needs? Which ones?

9. What makes something a test? Why are tests important? Are they fair?

10. What differences, if any, justify treating students differently?

For some approaches to these issues, see Readings and Related Assignments in Philosophy of Education.


Within education, the term "philosophy" is casually used to cover a complex and varied group of traditions. There are at least three different traditions which are commonly called "philosophical":

Wisdoms: broad pronouncements taken as authoritative. These can range from isolated statements of "crackerbarrel" philosophers, to complex and revered doctrines.

Institutional philosophies or ideologies.6, i.e. rationalizations, often theoretically intricate, of practices and social institutions School and curricular philosophies tend to be of this nature.

Critical philosophy, i.e. critical analysis or discussion done in any of the traditions widely accepted as Socratic. It assumes the capacity of the individual to discern truth, even when in conflict with traditions or institutions.

The problem for educators in a pluralistic society is that they must deal with competing wisdoms and ideologies. Critical inquiry provides approaches and methods with enable them to do so with a minimum of bias toward any one of the competing perspectives. The practical use of critical inquiry requires some restriction of focus, initially at least, so that it moves easily from theory to application. Thus, in focussing on education we will restrict critical inquiry to criteriology, that is, it is the study of the justifications, sources, and forms of criteria for decision-making in educational contexts.


See Related Article:
A Method for Generating Critical & Criterial Questions

Let's leam more about critical philosophy by actually engaging in it. We will examine school ideologies and try to develop for each example critical questions and related criteria questions. Critical questions raise issues that those committed to the ideology would most likely rather not deal with. Such a critical approach might indirectly bring the ideology into question. Criteria questions recast the critical questions into questions about criteria used to make a decision. Below, an example of an ideology is given first, followed by a set of critical questions derived from it. Then criteria questions are formed from the critical questions. For example,

IDEOLOGY ON DEVELOPING A CONCEPTION OF AUTHORITY: The social development of elementary school students proceeds as the child becomes aware of the various authority structures that operate throughout the school, the community, the region, and the nation.
Related critical questions: Can the child's social development proceed by some other manner that by awareness of authority? What counts as becoming aware of or recognizing authority?

After developing the critical questions, pick out the important concepts. In this case, let's just look at "social development," "authority," and "awareness." To make a related criteria question, ask of each of these concepts, what are its criteria?

Related criteria questions: What are the criteria for social development? What are the criteria that define authority? On what basis do we decide (that is, what are the criteria) that a conflict is occurring?

For the next two ideologies, develop critical and related criteria questions:


The only learning which significantly influences behavior is personal, self-discovered, self-appropriated learning. This kind of learning cannot be communicated through conventional forms of teaching where the school approaches students with pre-set curricula and methods.... Although the school experiences are social, each student follows his own path in the acquisition of knowledge.

Related Critical Questions: What forms of learning are not personal, self-discovered or self-appropriated?

Related Criteria Questions: What are the criteria for identifying learning? Personal learning?


The affectivity of our school leads to acceptance of Christ as personal savior. Our school is part of a community of faith. lt is a spiritual environment.... It is an environment which arouses a student to faith.

Related Critical Questions:

Related Criteria Questions:


Related CRITICAL questions on the learner as a self-actualized knower What forms of learning are not personal, self-discovered or selfappropriated? What counts as a significant influence on behavior? Is the claim that only self-discovered learning significantly influences behavior a research discovery? Or is it a matter of definition? Why can't traditional curricula serve the self-actualized knower?

Related CRITERIA questions on the learner as a self-actualized knower What are the criteria for identifying learning? Personal learning? Self-discovered? Self-appropriated? How do we identify types of behavior? Influences? Significance? What criteria distinguish traditional from other types of curricula? What are the criteria by which curriculum is identified?

Related CRITICAL questions on affective education for religious community: If Faith is the end, does it justify any means? Why this affective approach and not another? Is this approach uniquely Christian? Can the affective needs of the individual come into conflict with those of the community?

Related CRITERIA questions on affective education for religious community: What criteria identify those who have faith? How are faiths distinguished? What makes an approach "affective?" What are the criteria for being Christian? How might we identify a conflict? What identifies the community?


1 K. Petras & R. Petlas The Whole World Book of Quotations (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1995) p. 285

2 Cf.John Passmore, "Philosophy" (in Edwards, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 6 pp. 216-226.)

2A See the Gallery of Educational Theorists which includes mixed interrogatories of philosophical, theoretical and technical questions.

3. Cf. The Preferred Wisdom of Elementary Schools. An anthology of school philosophies. Philadelphia Assembly of Elementary Schools, 1980) Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, 3624 Market Street, Phila PA 19104. See also E. G. Rozycki, "Teaching Philosophy to Teachers: are ISM's Philosophy?"

4The Preferred Wisdom of ...p.16

4A See Edward G. Rozycki, "LEADERSHIP AS USURPATION: the Grand Inquisitor Syndrome and Morality in Rank-Based Organizations" available at

5 The Philosophy Major. A statement prepared under the auspices of the Board of Officers of the American Philosophical Association.

5aa For various introductory essays with supportive references, see, Posts sorted by relevance for query truth

5A See E. G. Rozycki, "Inquiry Blockers"

6 Cf. John B. Thompson, Studies in the Theory of Ideology, (Berkeley: U. of Cal. Press, 1984) 3 - 6.

7 The Preferred Wisdom.... p. l7

8The Preferred Wisdom .... p. 23.