An idiot’s guide to the philosophy of education: Part 1


Socrates was a brilliant man. Not only is he considered the father of Western philosophy, he was also a great teacher and, what’s more, a great teacher trainer. One of Socrates’ most successful students was Plato, who, in turn, went on to teach Aristotle, who himself would then tutor Alexander the Great. There are no records of Alexander the Great’s teaching career, so I imagine he was one of those that didn’t quite make it through their NQT year. Who knows what he did after that. Anyway, it’s clear that teacher retention was an issue even in ancient Greece.

But back to Socrates. He was a true polymath – aside from all the philosophising and teaching, probably his greatest moment was captaining Brazil at the 1982 FIFA World Cup in Spain. Not bad for a Greek. To put that into context, fellow philosopher of education Paulo Freire was actually a Brazilian national and he didn’t even get a single cap for Brazil, let alone captain them at a World Cup.

But what about Socrates’ educational philosophy?

Socrates saw education as a way to train the individual to become a “noble puppy” who will be friendly with familiars and fierce with foreigners. A bit like Katie Hopkins. But, unlike Hopkins, Socrates didn’t rely on some sort of deep-seated psychological need for attention to achieve this attitude. No, he used education. Specifically, Socrates believed that all people needed was an education in music (for the soul) and gymnastics (for the body). Just those two subjects. It’s basically what the EBacc would be if Sir Ken Robinson was Secretary of State for Education.

Socrates also invented the Socratic method, which is a method of birth control in which a partner is continually questioned and challenged during the act of coitus until they are so disconcerted that they are unable to achieve climax/no longer fancy it.

Ultimately, Socrates was sentenced to death for corrupting his students, which is the worst Ofsted grade you can get.

Socrates’ last words were “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; please pay it and don’t forget”, which pretty much sums up why you don’t see him quoted very often on motivational posters.*

(*Although, I’m going to declare right now that I’d work for any headteacher who has this on their office wall.)

John Locke

John Locke was born in 1632 in Wrington, Somerset, which is in Middle Earth. Amongst his many philosophical ideas, Locke believed that a legitimate government is one that represents the will of the people. His views on a second referendum are unclear.

Locke lived through one of the most turbulent times in English history – witnessing Charles I quarrelling with Parliament and his subsequent execution, the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London, the Glorious Revolution, Dirty Den’s murder, Arthur Fowler stealing the Christmas Club money, and Janine pushing Barry off that cliff.

What about his thoughts on education?

In 1693, Locke published his treatise ‘Some Thoughts Concerning Education’. A treatise is a 17th century blog. If Locke were writing it today, it would be called ‘Musings on Education’ and it would have been reblogged by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Locke suggested that, when we are born, our mind is a blank slate or ‘raisin de table’. Locke said that we are basically like an Etch-a-Sketch: our minds begin with a blank screen and, whilst some of us are lucky enough to be adorned with beautiful detailed pictures like the one below, most of us end up with a crude, unintelligible picture of something obscene.

As such, Locke believed that education makes the man, arguing that “nine parts of ten” of what constitutes a person comes from their education. The tenth part is made up of all lies they tell about themself on their CV and dating profiles (“love my work”, “really into existential theatre”, “do a lot of work for charity”, “quinoa is delicious”, etc.)

Locke was pretty much a utilitarian when it came to curriculum. He hated the idea of spending hours learning Latin when children could be improving their native language instead. Essentially, whenever a pupil repeats the classic refrain, “Why are we learning this? When am I ever going to use this?”, they are pretty much quoting Locke.

We can see further evidence of Locke’s utilitarianism through his attitude to various subjects. For example, he thought that pupils should be taught to draw because it would be useful for them to sketch things that they see when they are travelling foreign places and then bore family and friends when they return by showing them this visual record of their trip: “Here’s the waiter in the hotel that Margaret flirted with every night… ooh that’s me coming out of the flume… yes, those Speedo’s were a bit tight…”

Most of Locke’s ideas on education were aimed at the middle and upper classes, but he did turn his eye to the working classes in his ‘Essay on the Poor Law’. In this piece, he argued that working class kids were a burden on society and so ‘working schools’ should be established, in which poor children will be “inured to work” from three years old. To be honest, I find it hard to reconcile my shock at this attitude towards young children being sent out to work with the fact that I’ve watched and enjoyed ‘Bugsy Malone’ at least a dozen times. Locke’s influence on Western thought has been considerable, but I think we can all agree that it reached its finest moment with that film.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau was born and raised in Geneva, Switzerland in the 18th century and, among his many achievements, he is known as the inventor of off-rolling. He is thought to have had five children but this figure is uncertain as he did not keep adequate records of them. Rather than bringing up these children and educating them himself, he famously off-rolled them and they ended up being educated at the local foundling hospital instead.

But this is good news for us because, with his children out of the way, Rousseau was able to formulate his theories on education and child-rearing for which he is celebrated today.

After hearing about Rousseau’s children, Voltaire called him a “monster”. But presumably he meant like one of those nice friendly cuddly ones from Disney Pixar’s ‘Monsters, Inc.’ that are all child-centred and that by the end of the film.

What exactly were Rousseau’s views on education?

Rousseau wanted to share his views and ideas on education, so he wrote a treatise on education in which he put forward his philosophies on education. He called this book ‘Émile’. But then anybody picking the book off the shelf in Waterstones wouldn’t have known what it was about so his publisher made him give it the alternative title, ‘On Education’, which made more sense. It’s like when they renamed the 1987 comedy ‘Harry and the Hendersons’ as ‘Bigfoot and the Hendersons’, so everyone knew it was about a Bigfoot.

After its publication, ‘On Education’ was banned in Paris and Geneva and authorities ordered that copies of the book should be burned, whilst Rousseau himself was threatened with arrest if he ever set foot in his hometown again. This is basically like having your Twitter account suspended except not quite as traumatic.

‘On Education’ later became the most viewed TED talk during the French Revolution and eventually formed the basis of a national system of education.

Er, yeh, but what was his actual philosophy of education?

In Rousseau’s book, we follow the title character Émile throughout his early life, and the author uses the character to illustrate how a child should be educated. To begin with, Rousseau divides childhood into three stages:

  1. The first stage up until the age of 12, when children are guided by their emotions and impulses.
  2. The second stage between 12 and 16, when reason starts to develop.
  3. The third stage, from 16 onwards, when the child develops to adulthood.

It is notable that the three stages of childhood are precisely inverse to the three stages of Twitter:

  1. The first stage, lasting about three months, when the adult sets up their Twitter account and begins to develop their usage.
  2. The second stage, from 3 months to a year, when reason starts to dissipate.
  3. The third stage, from a year onwards, when users are guided entirely by their emotions and impulses.

In his book, Rousseau describes the way a child should be educated at each stage of their life. First he suggests that a child should learn to paint the fence and wax the car, before he then moves on to more formal training in order to achieve the ultimate aim of entering and winning the All Valley Karate Championship.

A key tenet of Rousseau’s philosophy is that, upon entering formal education during the teenage years, the child should only study what they are curious about. This, he believes, will then lead to them nurturing a love for all things. There’s no mention in the book as to whether, when told he should study only what he is curious about, Émile locked himself in his room for the next three years and demanded that nobody enter under any circumstances.

Rousseau went on to write a sequel to ‘On Education’, called ‘Émile et Sophie’, which was directed by François Truffaut, stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and is adored by pretentious sixth formers.

An idiot’s guide to the philosophy of education: Part 2 can be found here.

An idiot’s guide to the philosophy of education: Part 3 can be found here.


10 thoughts on “An idiot’s guide to the philosophy of education: Part 1”

      1. Apologies – I liked the humour, but assumed the topic was also chosen to enlighten a bit as well as to lighten 😉

  1. Haha! That’s very funny. Loads of good lines, but my fave was “It’s basically what the EBacc would be if Sir Ken Robinson was Secretary of State for Education.” – who knew that was Socratic…

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