July 12-31, 2020

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Dear Colleague:

The national debate on education is currently dominated by discussion of tenure, unions, the achievement gap, choice, Common Core, teacher evaluation, school size, and school safety. There is little discussion of what we teach and why. The overarching goals of the NEH Summer Seminar What We Teach and Why: Philosophers of Education from the Enlightenment to the Present will be to introduce NEH Summer Scholars to debates among significant philosophers of education, to understand the connections among their ideas, and to articulate ways their theories can be made accessible and relevant to K-12 educators today.

Studying the philosophy of education encourages teachers and administrators to reflect on a series of fundamental questions about their craft, questions that come up variously over the course of a career. Some are broad and philosophic:

    • What are the goals of education? Happiness? Wisdom? Wealth? Virtue?
    • Is a child a blank slate or imprinted with inclinations, temperament and aptitudes?

Others deal with the appropriate role of the teacher:

    • Should teachers build character? If so, how?
    • Should teachers in schools try to change society?
    • Should the teacher be a “guide on the side” or a “sage on the stage”?

Answers to many of these questions of course evolve gradually over a career, the products of experience, observation, and individual teacher temperament. They can also emerge from—and be enhanced significantly by–the study of past and present philosophers of education.

Starting with the Enlightenment, we will look at John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Thomas Jefferson’s letters, and Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile. Moving on to the 19th century, we will read Horace Mann’s Reports on Education, William James’ Talks to Teachers on Psychology, and John Dewey’s The School and Society. We will study the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois over African-American education and analyze Maria Montessori’s The Montessori Method. We will consider 20th century critics of Progressive Education, such as William Bagley and Arthur Bestor.


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