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Philosophy of Education

by Randolph U. Gibson

Computer Science Department
Indian River State College, Fort Pierce, Florida USA

Learning can be divided into three levels. The first is "learning by conditioned response". A baby's first coordinated motions or use of speech are the result of synthesizing knowledge gained from experiencing many failures and successes. Most early acquisitions of knowledge are attained through an evaluation of our experiences with respect to instinctive human reactions to outside stimuli. This first level of learning helps us to survive. Beyond this, the curiosity inherent in primates forces most of us into a more active learning mode in which we question our environment. This second level of learning offers rewards and dangers, but normally results in the improvement of an individual's ability to live with a sense of security or well being. Some people even develop the motivation to seek knowledge for reasons beyond those which brought about the first two learning modes. These motivations transcend such basic forces as survival instincts or curiosity. They are related to creativity and inspiration. Third level learners envision possibilities outside of their experience and then endeavor to bring them about, often resulting in growth and prosperity. The source of an individual's motivation to raise learning to this third level is uncertain. Perhaps it is a natural extension of the survival instinct, an outgrowth of Descartes' philosophy "I think, therefore I am" and a hunger to be more. Maybe it relates to Francis Bacon's recognition that "knowledge is power" and a desire to be stronger. Regardless, it exists and is a major driving force behind individual human development.

Some may ask "Of what value is the survival or prosperity of individuals?" Individuals are ephemeral and weak with respect to their environment. On the other hand, humanity has shown some resilience and longevity. This suggests that the survival of the human race requires cooperation amongst individuals. It is difficult for individuals to survive. This lesson of nature encourages individuals to recognize their common goals and to work together for the survival of humankind. The lesson is recited in a plenitude of sayings such as "there is strength in numbers", "two heads are better than one", and "united we stand". The truth of this lesson is the foundation beneath marriage, the family unit, and communities. Civilizations grow as more and more people embrace this truth. A thriving civilization is the best hope for the survival of individuals.

Unfortunately history also has shown that, unlike individuals, civilizations seldom learn from their mistakes. Most civilizations suffer a breakdown in synergy with respect to learning. In fact, many civilizations have failed even to survive, let alone thrive. The problem lies in the ignorance of individuals about the need for their civilization to learn as a whole and ongoing entity rather than just as many individuals. No group can mature into a healthy and prosperous civilization without everyone engaging in a continuous learning process that recognizes the importance of common beneficial goals. This reality forms the basis for education. Education must support this practice and make this it achievable. The value of education is in helping individuals to become worthy citizens and in advancing the common goals of civilization. These ideas are at the heart of education. This explains why scholars such as Cohen and Brauer use the term "general education" to define "knowledge for personal and civic life".

A definition of the goals of any civilization is far beyond the scope of this document. We can recognize though, that such goals are sure to encompass the union of the needs and desires of individuals and the masses.  These goals must extend to ensure the well-being of civilization as a whole. The common needs of individuals are fairly well known. Their desires are more obscure and diverse, but they also contain many common threads, such as desires for a sense of security, worth, gratification, or respect. Still more varied and complex are the goals which nurture civilization as an entity, such as tolerance and generosity. To support all of these goals education must be comprehensive. Civilization is served best by educational institutions which perform functions beyond mere academic development, such as community and economic development and personal and cultural enrichment. Thus, schools with a comprehensive mission are best equipped to meet civilization's educational goals. These institutions must maintain constant vigilance over the changing needs of civilization and be dynamic enough to remold themselves whenever necessary.

Knowledge is a resource. Its value is in its application. Institutions such as primary and secondary schools focus on the development of basic knowledge and skills. Universities focus on the generation of knowledge rather than its distribution. Of all educational institutions, the one most charged with the mission of developing the ability of people to apply knowledge is the community college. Many of the recent efforts to re-invent education focus on the application of knowledge and technology rather than simply the study of them for their own sake. National initiatives such as Tech-Prep and School-to-Work gave evidence of this fact.

Without education, human progress would be dependent merely on circumstance. Learning from circumstance is a passive process. The lessons of individual learning show us that the most productive forms of learning are proactive. Thus, the growth and prosperity of civilization requires an educational process that emphasizes learning as an activity that is the duty of all individuals rather than their right. One of the central missions of all educational institutions must be to foster this belief and to plan for and measure their success around it. Attainment of this mission requires wide spread individual involvement. The proximity and accessibility of community colleges make them ideal instruments for accomplishing the goals of education. The "open door" concept is essential to educational success. If all individuals were encouraged to learn and to build their capacities to be effective members of their civilization, that civilization would be tremendously enriched in the process.

Community colleges have the potential to contribute to the survival, well being, and prosperity of civilization to a degree which would probably astound most people if they ever made the effort to think about it. Descartes was right. If only the reverse were true.

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