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The Philosophy of Education: Beyond the Classroom Walls

By Alessia Iannucci

In this article, Alessia provides a succinct introduction to the philosophy of education.

In the modern world, education is often viewed through a utilitarian lens: as a means to a job, a passport to a higher socio-economic status, or a necessary credential in an increasingly competitive world. However, the philosophy of education extends far beyond the classroom walls, reaching into the domains of ethics, politics and human nature itself. It raises questions about what we teach, how we teach, why we teach, and most importantly, what it means to be an "educated" person.

American philosopher John Dewey, a signer and supporter of the Humanist Manifesto of 1933. Image: public domain (source Wikipedia).

The What: Curriculum Content

Traditionally, the educational curriculum has been organized around the core disciplines of mathematics, science, language, and social studies. But what subjects are genuinely "essential", and according to whose standards? Plato, in his Academy, argued for the centrality of subjects that nurture the soul, such as philosophy and arts. By contrast, the educational theories proposed by John Dewey in the 20th century emphasized "learning by doing", heralding subjects like vocational training and social studies as critical. The determination of what subjects comprise a "complete" education reflects cultural values and philosophical beliefs, often serving as a microcosm of society’s prevailing ideologies.

The How: Pedagogical Approaches

"How" we teach is just as philosophically-laden as what we teach. The Socratic method is dialogue-driven, provoking critical thought through questioning. Contrast this with the rote memorisation prevalent in various educational systems around the world, intended to produce conformity and discourage questioning. The "banking model of education", where students are empty vessels to be filled with information, has been criticized for creating passive learners. In a world of accelerating change, educationalists like Sir Ken Robinson (1950-2020) advocated a pedagogy that fosters creativity, adaptability, and the capacity for lifelong learning.

The Why: the Purpose of Education

The purpose of education varies significantly depending on who you ask. Is it merely to prepare students for employment? Is it to cultivate informed citizens capable of democratic participation? Or is it, as Aristotle posited, to facilitate the realisation of one’s full human potential? These conflicting goals result from different philosophies about the role of education in society, whether it's to serve capitalism by preparing students for the labour market, or to develop the "whole child" through a more holistic approach.

Educated Individuals: Products or Producers?

In the eyes of some, an educated person is one who has absorbed a certain body of knowledge. To others, education is a process of personal and social transformation. Therefore, are educated individuals the "products" or the "producers" of the educational system? This question ties into broader debates about human nature and the role of individuals in society. Should education cultivate autonomous thinkers, or is it a means of socialisation to create harmonious citizens? The philosophy of education brings these undercurrents to the surface, allowing for conscious deliberation and policy formation.

A Holistic Vision: Toward an Inclusive Philosophy of Education

As society evolves, so must our philosophy of education. The current landscape requires a hybrid approach, one that recognizes the importance of vocational skills while also fostering intellectual curiosity, ethical discernment and emotional intelligence. Furthermore, education must become more inclusive, breaking down barriers of race, gender, and socio-economic status, to genuinely democratise opportunity. For this, a philosophy that focuses on universal human values and equitable access is crucial.


Education is not merely an act of imparting knowledge; it is a complex interplay of societal values, historical context, and individual experiences. Its philosophy thus cannot be confined to textbooks but must be a subject of public discourse, continually evolving to meet the needs of an ever-changing world. Whether it serves as a tool for economic advancement or personal growth, or ideally both, will depend on the philosophies that guide it. Therefore, a considered philosophy of education is not a pedagogical luxury but a societal necessity.

By engaging deeply with the philosophy of education, we elevate it from a mundane act to an existential endeavour, transcending immediate needs and looking at the long-term impact on individuals and society. After all, education is both a right and a responsibility, but most importantly, it is the cornerstone of a civilized society.

Further reading

The Sage Handbook of Philosophy of Education (2013) edited by Richard Bailey et al

The Philosophy of Education: An Introduction (2010) edited by Richard Bailey

Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) by Paulo Freire

The Philosophy of Education (1966) by R. S. Peters

Experience and Education (1938) by John Dewey

The Republic by Plato (c. 380 BCE, specifically the sections on education)

This article was written by ChatGPT-4 and Alessia is a fictional writer. The further reading section was added by our editorial team. This article meets our editorial standards for interest and accuracy but please let us know if you spot any errors.

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