Philosophy of Education Perspectives: The Reconstructionist Speaks

An introduction to the Educational Philosophy Perspectives Series: I currently convene and lecture a course in the Philosophy of Education for undergraduate students. Each week we cover a new philosophical perspective or paradigm. The following series will encompass short pieces written when wearing different “paradigm hats,” the purpose of which is to illustrate differing viewpoints within the Philosophy of Education. I have received positive feedback from students and staff who have enjoyed some of these pieces as a way to promote conceptual understanding of the content and critical analysis. The following was written to provoke thought in my Philosophy of Education students in connection with learning about Reconstructionism, which is the view that change is urgently needed in the world and that education should be an agent for positive change.

The Reconstructionist Speaks: Education has Failed!

“Education has failed! It might seem like strong words, but if one looks at the state of the world as a whole, is it not a reasonable conclusion to make? Not everybody will see eye to eye with such a view, of course, but perhaps that could also be seen as further evidence that education has failed. Could it be that education has failed all of us who are not even able (or willing) to see the realities around us?

Education has failed those who are in denial about climate change, either out of a fear of facing reality, because of selfish, shortsighted interests, or some other internal obstacle to acting with global and social responsibility. Education has failed those young people who drink themselves senseless in the weekend to escape day-to-day reality, putting themselves and others at great risk. And what about the quarter of all young Australians who have mental health issues, and the quarter of 5 to 12 year olds who are obese or overweight? If we see education as something that we are all responsible for—parents, society, schools—have we not all failed our children by the time they are 12, as most of them will have seen highly inappropriate images online and on television, which robs them of their innocence, and which research shows is highly detrimental for their development of future, healthy relationships with others?

Again, with all due respect to those who would disagree with these propositions, looking at the state of childhood and adolescence, let alone the problems we have created by denigrating the natural and social environment, where are the indicators of educational success? That most of our kids can read and write? That our primary educational challenge before us seem to be to make them better at reading and writing so we can climb the world rankings? That to me is not success, but further indicators of our collective blindness to the realities of status quo.

Education will be successful only when it understands that true knowledge is synonymous with human virtues and wisdom. What is ‘true knowledge’, ‘human virtue’, and ‘wisdom’? According to Socrates and Plato—the forefathers of the reasoning we profess to treasure so highly in the western world—these concepts have nothing to do with just ‘knowing stuff’, or the ‘havingness’, so saturated in our materialistic consumer society. True knowledge is a ‘beingness’, an ability to use knowledge to display wisdom and human virtues, such as, compassion, empathy and social concern. Without human virtue, Socrates-Plato argued, we have nothing, and there is no use in ‘knowing more stuff’? Or as a good friend said to me, who used to work with juvenile offenders, what’s the use of being literate and numerate if you go and stab someone?

What’s the use of having enough ‘knowledge’ to create new and artificial ecosystems if we don’t have the wisdom to protect our own? Never before in the entire human history has it been more paramount that our knowledge is combined with a wisdom situated in social and environmental concern. Education will not create a better world until it realizes that it needs new content, not new methods. This new content is the knowledge and science of and about human virtues and values and what makes us truly human(e). It is a knowledge, intimately connected at all turns with how we look after each other and our natural environment, our home. This knowledge is of course not ‘new’ if wise people, such as Socrates and Plato, have talked about it and exemplified it in the past. But it is new in the sense that global, public education has never had such a knowledge as a cornerstone of its curriculum.

The Dalai Lama has written about how the heart and mind was separated in education ever since the rise of modern science, and to a large extent this has been a natural, and some would say needed, reaction to the religious indoctrination that was present before the Church and State were separated in the western world. What we need today is not a return to a particular religious framework, but rather a harnessing of the underlying wisdom that has always been present in the core messages of all the major religions, no matter how much their interpretations have been perverted at times. What we need in our school curriculum is a synthesis of scientific and perennial wisdom, with which we can help young people to become wise and of virtuous of character, so that they can safely navigate themselves and the world out of our current mess.”

Bibliographic reference (APA style):

Nielsen, T. W. (2016). The Reconstructionist Speaks: Education has Failed!. Retrieved <Day Month, Year (e.g. 24 March, 2016), from

Picture: “YF_Philosophy_2” by Rachel Tan © 2013.