Paradoxes & Praxis: The 21st Century Imperative for Educational Foundations

Paradoxes & The Foundations of Education

We propose that the genesis of education is the paradox. Yet, if we may be so bold, conceptions of curricula and pedagogies, educational policies and the laws that form them, as well as the situated and situational moments among educators and students and within our society too often ignore paradoxes. The desire for efficiencies of decision making, budgeting of resources, and winning political strategies force the ignorance of paradoxes. We have a rich and extensive record of knowledge on education from great thinkers across the globe, the knowledges of communities, and explorations of the timeless paradoxes that education surfaces. We have record of some of this knowledge in writing and will read a small selection of these texts this semester. The unrecorded knowledge(s) from the past and even the present, may be lost to us except in those instances when scholars and public intellectuals recover and record them. Nonetheless, contemporary educational policy and decisions often ignore this publicly available knowledge. You might ask,

Why would the public ignore knowledge it could access?

The answer is multifold—limited or lack of knowledge of the foundation of education, discounting its value, and the vastness of this body of work. Furthermore, few people, even educated educators, read and study it as you will. Reading the foundations of education requires more than understanding and knowing what you read—the more common ways of dealing with bodies of knowledge. Any exploration into educational thought, philosophy, and praxis plunges us into paradoxes.

Paradoxes are the seemingly illogical coexistence of contradictions that do exist simultaneously.

Stemming from the ancient Greek παράδοξου (paradoxa), a paradox is a received opinion or expectation (OED, 2009) that is contrary to belief (Baggini & Fosl, 2003, pp. 108). A singular, definitive definition of paradox does not exist, but Cuonzo (2014, p. 2-17) identifies key features of paradoxes.

A set of mutually inconsistent propositions, each of which seems true.
A paradox presents an argument with good assumptions and reasoning but false conclusion.
An unacceptable conclusion born of seemingly good premises and reasoning.

Take for example, these buttons, an example of the liars paradox. The red one and the blue one can be true individually, but taken together the conclusion is unacceptable and false. Consider this flask that both empties and fills itself as a paradox. You probably know other paradoxes. What came first, the chicken or the egg? If you travel back in time and kill your grandparent, you won't exist to time travel.

Paradoxes are not only inescapable in educational thought, philosophy, praxis, and policy, they require unique and sophisticated ways of thinking. One aspect of such thinking is the ability to notice and identify paradoxes such as the questions posed to you above.

Do you attend to the needs of many students or an individual student?
Would you educate for the potential of the individual or the society?
Do you focus on the means (how you educate) or the ends (goals of education)?
Would the majority or minority make educational decisions in your vision?
Do you individualize curricula or standardized a curriculum for students?
Does your curriculum draw on the past or prepare for the future?
Would your education privilege some or enhance equity? 
        …. the poor or rich, the influential or ignored, the common or elite?
Would your education form the society or result from society?

Notice that if you focus on one element in each question, you effect the other element. For example, if you educate for the potential of the individual, you effect the potential of the society. The reverse will be true if you focus on educating for the potential of the society.

Careful consideration of any of these questions yields many answers. For Sorenson (2003), such queries are paradoxes because they “suspend us between too many good answers” (p. xii). Sorensen thinks of paradoxes as the “atoms of philosophy” (p. xi) because they serve as points of departure for philosophy as a question-based discipline.

Indeed many philosophers address similar questions and their conclusions are dizzyingly exponential. On the question, Who should be taught philosophy?, we notice contradictory answers. Matthew Limpan (1994) would answer all children from first to twelfth grades and point to the curriculum series he created for this purpose. To make such a claim, however, Lipman must deal with Plato’s desire “for sequestering children and philosophy from one another” (Reed & Johnson, 2008, p. 261). Gareth Matthews (1994) maintains that some children can think philosophically with some sophistication and should have opportunities to do so with more adults, who are more disciplined and mature. But he would not require philosophical instruction for uninterested children. On this one point, three philosophers offer three solutions: teach all children, teach no children, teach interested children. Each well-reasoned answer offers a reasonable course of action. However, the collective and contradictory answer leads to no straightforward route. After all, philosophy is not about the simple or the singular, but the connections, the contradictions, and the tensions.

The paradox offers a particular dialectical opportunity to understand education. It is valuable because it forces us to exam premises and arguments in the effort to resolve (Baggini & Fosl, 2003)—or not—the contradiction(s) it poses. Also powerful, the paradox offers contradictions that “force us to scrutinize what seems so obviously right” (p. 110) and is only re-solved after identification and rejection of the mistaken reasoning or erroneous assumption.

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