The issue I am choosing to evaluate with respect to the philosophy of education is that of poverty. Although poverty in itself is not typically a primarily philosophical issue and is more of a sociological and economic factor, how it is approached as an obstacle to education is reflective of the philosophical tenets that underpin attitudes towards education. To this end, I will examine relevant attitudes from philosophies of education from ancient up until contemporary philosophy and evaluate how these attitudes may have shaped our current approaches to the problem of poverty within education.
The philosophy of education is practically as old as civilisation itself, dating back to the Ancient Greeks. Plato’s philosophy of education as detailed in The Republic advocates for a state-controlled education system that is tailored to best serve the needs of society. Firstly, Plato believed that talent was not innate and that it could be cultivated in almost any man. This logic borrowed from Socrates’ theory of the philosopher king, by which the primary criterion for society’s rulers should be wisdom and that the capacity for this was not limited by social caste (Republic, 489-493).Therefore, education should not be restricted based on wealth, as has been the case in Athenian society. All individuals should receive an elementary education and should only be streamed into different professions once reaching adulthood: the brightest and best were then to be trained to rule society whilst others would undergo apprenticeships for more practical jobs.
For the ancient world, this was a remarkably radical model for education and in some respects it has set a standard that reflects contemporary educational values. For example, Plato advocates for education being state-controlled and allocating resources to provide education for those who cannot typically afford it. However, this is not necessarily coincident with one of the contemporary goals of education, which is to eradicate poverty. One of the guiding aims behind educational strategies in the twenty-first century is to reduce global poverty (UNESCO, 2017), however, Plato’s educational system serves the state rather than the individual and essentially creates a class system based on educational ability. In particular, the status of slaves and whether they get to receive education is unclear (Calvert, 1987).
Plato’s student, Aristotle, has similar views on education to Plato but is more restrictive in terms of who should have access to it. Aristotle believes that women and slaves should not have access to education (Clayton, 2003, 4). Like Plato, Aristotle’s model for secondary education was limited to those who should enter politics, and in Athenian society only the wealthiest of society (around 15% of the population) were politically enfranchised. Aristotle does not believe this proportion should be increased, demonstrating that the vast majority of Athenian society would not have access to education in adulthood. As the politically enfranchised were typically the wealthiest of society, this clearly exclude not only the impoverished such as slaves, but potentially everyone but the most powerful and affluent of society. This elitist outlook thus runs against the universalist principles underlying current educational principles. The Ancient Greeks believed, like us, that the state should run provide education to best serve society’s political and economic but wholly overlooks the needs of the individual and potentially or deliberately excludes society’s most economically vulnerable people.
The influence of the Platonic and Aristotelian theories of education is exemplified by the historical inequalities in access to education across the classical and medieval eras of European history. Although Plato’s model contends that the most able individuals can be found among any caste of society, access to education remained unequal because they assume a hierarchical ordering of society in which the poor are subservient to society’s rulers. This model for social hierarchy and its resultant effect on education would endure virtually unchallenged up until the Enlightenment of the early modern era. The philosophers of the Enlightenment challenged the foundations of social inequality through a rejection of concepts such as monarchical absolutism that justified the inequalities of society through reference to religious dogma.
Of all the philosophers of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau perhaps had the most to say about education. Rousseau had a unique perspective on education, which was that it was essentially corruptive. Rousseau did not see the education of the upper class and lack of education among the lower orders as necessarily a bad thing, but that was not because he was an elitist. Uniquely, Rousseau interpreted the way education was taught to be corruptive of the upper class and responsible for their predatory treatment of the poor. To Rousseau, humankind in nature was morally perfect and it is society that corrupts individuals and produces inequality (Bertram, 2010, 5). Therefore, education had to be reformed completely. At the core of this new education system, teachers would not instruct individuals or try to directly instil knowledge but would rather structure their classes so that students could themselves discover the world in a naturalistic way. This would serve as the foundation for an individual’s education during their elementary years and only in secondary school would they receive more formal instruction. However, the core of this education was not necessarily in imparting knowledge but in training individuals how to process the world around them. At the core of this was teaching individuals how to regard the world with compassion.
In some respects, this theory of education coincides with a contemporary trend towards holistic education that has been increasingly popular at primary level education since the 1980s (Patel, 2003). However, it is not fair to say that Rousseau’s attitudes towards poverty were in keeping with current aims. Although Rousseau opposed inequality, he believed that correct education was important only for the upper class as they had the most means to inflict inequity upon society if their education facilitated an immoral or unsympathetic outlook on the world. Conversely, he believed the poor did not require education as they essentially functioned outside of institutions in a state of nature that did not pollute their innate sense of fairness and justice. Naturally, this does not coincide with contemporary views on the relationship between poverty and education.
The Enlightenment itself did, however, produce a more lasting effect on attitudes towards poverty and education through its emphasis on equality. At the heart of the Enlightenment project was the criterion of rationality for arriving at true knowledge. This epistemological theory revolutionised attitudes towards education and to society in general insofar as it invalidated beliefs that were based on tradition or dogma. This served to undermine the justifications for social hierarchies in which some individuals were excluded from access to education based on the circumstances of their birth. However, this did not necessarily mandate universal access to education. Eradicating the systems that guaranteed that some people were doomed to poverty did not necessarily introduce measures or policies that would help them escape poverty, such as free access to education.
The liberal attitude towards education that emerged following the Enlightenment was heavily criticised by Karl Marx (Rikowski, 2004). Although moves towards greater access to education were made across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Marx believed that the persistence of inequality in capitalist societies were in part maintained by how these education systems functioned. The ability for wealthy families to send their children to school past the compulsory age – or to pay for access to the best schools – essentially reproduced economic inequality down the generations. This is naturally an issue that is still relevant today, particularly in ongoing political debates about the future role of private schools. Similarly, Marx stated that education systems legitimised inequality between the classes by falsely presenting the achievements of the wealthy as being meritocratic. This is criticism that hearkens back to the streaming of individuals into social roles in Plato’s philosophy, a logic arguably underpins the function of modern grammar schools. Finally, Marx argued that schools served to prioritise the needs of business rather than of the workers, and that education did not simply teach these skills but also taught social conformity.
Marx believed that any economic or social revolution must likewise be met with a complete reform of education that served the needs of the working class rather than of the bourgeoisie. These criticisms might likewise be applied to a perceived trend towards ‘academic capitalism’ as influenced by neo-liberal ideology (Baltodano, 2012). A neo-liberalism attitude towards education states that education should essentially fulfil market demands rather than the needs of individuals. Beyond this, neoliberalism arguably tends towards increased privatisation of schooling, particularly at a university level. This demonstrates that there is still significant debate as to what the purpose of schooling is: to serve society, the individual, or the economy. In this debate there is also a tension between how best to eradicate poverty: via a controlled economy or through a free market economy. The answer to this has potential consequences for education as is often evident in the educational policies of parties across the political spectrum.
The philosophy of education demonstrates that although attitudes towards the issue of poverty in education have altered significantly across the centuries, many of the debates remain relevant and ongoing. Platonic philosophers believed that the poor had the capacity to become educated and lead society but did not necessarily extend to them this right. In turn, this can be evinced from the attitudes to education from Enlightenment philosophers, who endorsed universal access to education but did not seek to guarantee equal access as a universal right. In the current contemporary environment, education is viewed as a means to eradicating poverty itself and thus it is mandated as a human right. However, the extent to which education should be geared to serve the economy and society or the individual depends to some extent on how education is theorised to impact poverty. Does education provide the skills necessary to find better employment and life the individual out of poverty, or does it merely convince them to accept the status quo of unequal business-worker relations in the neo-liberal economy? Although this is a new question, we can see that it is at its core an issue rooted in this lineage of philosophical debate.