Education and Philosphy

All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth~ Aristotle 



Plato argued in the Republic that intellectual pleasure is the best kind of pleasure.[1] However, the New World’s view on education stemmed from Bentham’s beliefs—seized upon by England’s Victorian industrialists[2]—of laissez-faire.[3] It wasn’t until the last quarter of the 19th century that most of the standards—which would characterize contemporary American education—came to life, and that education for every citizen needed to be actively pursued for usefulness in furthering the goals of the nation.[4] With this goal-oriented premise in mind, I will attempt to prove/disprove the fallacy with which our forefathers began to incorporate “with liberty and justice for all” as the basis for education in America, analyzing the origin of its roots in England. This paper shall present the case for how “utilitarianism” is the foundation of the Equal Rights movement as it pertains to education in America and the cultural evolution of its citizens’ mindsets; i.e., the Reconstruction Amendments[5], segregation, massive resistance, and the correlation of landmark events in education, which precipitated the Civil Rights[6] Act of 1964. In today’s world, is our education system based on Utilitarianism?

In his prize-winning, Anti-intellectualism in American Life,[7] Richard Hofstadter[8] set out to trace the social movements that altered the role of intellect in our society from a virtue to a vice. In so doing, he explored questions regarding the purpose of education and whether the democratization of education altered that purpose and reshaped its form. In considering the historic tension between access to education and excellence in education, Hofstadter argued that both anti-intellectualism and utilitarianism were consequences, in part, of the democratization of knowledge. Anti-intellectualism and utilitarianism were functions of our American cultural heritage, not necessarily of democracy. Hofstadter came to recognize the connection between utilitarianism and anti-intellectualism as his work in the history of education evolved. His initial concern with the role of the university and the intellectual in society developed into a powerful critique of the present purpose of education and the state of public education in the United States.[9] These themes, historically embedded in America’s fabric, are an outcome of her colonial European and evangelical Protestant heritage.

Charles Dickens’ Hard Times[10] was written in the middle of an era which prided itself on social, economic, and scientific achievements. The book deals with the enormous changes in British society caused by the Industrial Revolution which finally was forced to recognize the importance of education.

The first system to guarantee education for all students in England did not appear until 1870[11]–1892 until free education was put into law.[12] At best, the law allowed for these children of lower class families to become clerks or bookkeepers. The standard for education was quite low, carrying industrialist and utilitarian undertones—the only requirement being that a student find the sum of a “practice bill of parcels” in order to judge how “useful” curriculum was shaped by commerce and business.

Formulated by Jeremy Bentham and his followers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, utilitarianism was one of the first rational and systematic attempts to address the vast social, economic, and cultural problems caused by the impact of the Industrial Revolution on British society. Bentham’s philosophy was based on the belief that human institutions should be useful by providing for “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” In defining this greatest happiness or good, Bentham adopted what he called a “moral arithmetic,” evaluating each human action according to an actual formula, which balanced units of pleasure with units of pain. For Bentham, good resulted when pleasure—defined by each individual’s enlightened self-interest—predominated.[13]

The basis for education in England—consequently the basis for Education in the New World—is exceptionally well stated in Dickens’ Hard Times. He allies himself with John Stuart Mills’ specific objections to Bentham’s educational philosophy, emphasizing the disastrous implications of such an educational philosophy for individuals of intelligence and sensitivity, and argues against such narrow self interest.[14] It is from these close-minded values—only allowing for education to produce monetary results—that America’s educational system evolved, and in part exists today.

Paralleling England, until the 1840s, the education system in the United States was highly localized and available only to wealthy people. Reformers who wanted all children to gain the benefits of education opposed this premise. Prominent among them were Horace Mann in Massachusetts and Henry Barnard in Connecticut. The common-school reformers argued for the case on the belief that common schooling could create good citizens, unite society and prevent crime and poverty—to better society, not the pleasure and/or benefits of knowledge and learning for itself. As a result of their efforts, free public education at the elementary level was available for all American children by the end of the 19th Century. Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school attendance laws in 1852, followed by New York in 1853. By 1918 all states had passed laws requiring children to attend at least elementary school.[15] The caveat to this was that “all” children did not include Negro children.

Beginning with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, through the Reconstruction Amendments, 13th, 14th, and 15th it was stipulated that there should be equal education for all, including Blacks. This was circumvented by establishing “segregation.” It wasn’t until 1950 when a Supreme Court ordered a Black student to enter the University of Texas Law School[16] that it began to change, followed in 1954 with the unanimous decision by Earl Warren’s Supreme Court Justices[17] ruling that segregation in public schools was “inherently unequal” and thus unconstitutional.[18]

These landmark cases laid the foundation for the Civil Rights movement and success with the NAACP’s totalitarianism and Martin Luther King’s Deontological preferences. One of the major results was education for all being much more accessible to Blacks. Today this is clearly evidenced by the presence of a Black president and a First Lady[19] whose goal it is to further education for all, not only to strengthen productivity with totalitarian principles of the greatest good, but also with deontological results of a pleasurable pursuit of knowledge itself. This declaration would have been unacceptable a mere fifty years ago.

Deontological ethics is strongest in many of the areas where Utilitarianism is weakest. In an ethics of duty, the ends can never justify the means.[20]  Is today’s society based on utilitarianism? People are working longer hours, are more stressed and, less happy—rich and poor alike. Therefore, if most people are less happy, how can it be Utilitarianism—i.e., resulting in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people?

 It has always seemed strange to me

that in our endless discussions about education,

so little stress is laid on the pleasure

of becoming an educated person,

the enormous interest it adds to life.

To be able to be caught up into the world of thought—

that is to be educated. ~Edith Hamilton  [21]


[2] Victorian Lessons: Education and utilitarianism
[3] Laissez-faire – theory/system of government that upholds the autonomous character of the economic order
[4] The History of Education in America;
[5] Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the United States Constitution
[6] The term civil rights involves the rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens and residents by legislation and by the Constitution.
[7] Copyright © 1962, 1963 by Richard Hofstadter; Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. & Random House, Inc.
[8] American historian and Professor of American History at Columbia University. leading public intellectual of the 1950s
[10] Dickens wrote Hard Times in 1854, England
[11] Forster’s Education Act
[12] Education and utilitarianism
[13] ©1999, The Concord Review, Inc., Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize 2001 – Patrick Bradley,  Victorian Lessons:  Utilitarianism and Education in Bentham, Mill, and Dickens
[14] ©1999, The Concord Review, Inc., Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize 2001 – Patrick Bradley                Victorian Lessons:  Utilitarianism and Education in Bentham, Mill, and Dickens
[15] ~aidmn-ejournal/publications/2001-11/PublicEducationInTheUnitedStates.html
[16] Sweatt v. Painter – American Pageant; Copyright ©2008, 7th edition, Houghton Miflin
[17] Brown v. Board of Education—American Pageant; Copyright ©2008, 7th edition, Houghton Miflin
[18] overturned earlier rulings going back to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896
[19] Barrack Obama – Elected 2008—  44th President of the United States; Michelle Obama—First Lady
[21] (1867–1963) American educator and author who was “recognized as the greatest woman Classicist”. The Greek Way, “the calm lucidity of the Greek mind” and “that the great thinkers of Athens;

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