Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom: A Practical Guide for Education Philosophy Course

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Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom: A Practical Guide for Education Philosophy Courses. Sean Steel. New York: Peter Lang, 2018.


Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom is a wonderful book to be read and an essential book to have for teachers of philosophy. Instead of adopting the latest trends in education, like flipping the classroom or active learning, Steel looks back to antiquity to argue that teaching is the recovery of wisdom as a way of life. It is both an active and contemplative activity, open to experimentation, and explicit about discussing what values are required to lead a happy life. If you are tired of trying to understand the jargon of education and looking for a practical yet theoretically informed account of how to teach philosophy, Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom is the book for you.

The book consists of an introduction, an appendix, and thirteen chapters, with twelve of them focusing on a particular philosopher. The introduction invites teachers to recover the ancient understanding of philosophy as a love of wisdom and then apply it to their own teaching practices. Eschewing any dogma or doctrine of philosophy, Steel sees philosophy as a way of life that is less academic and more conversational in nature, possessing the potential power of transforming how one understands the world. He encourages the use of journal writing for both teachers and students as a way to assess learning and in the appendix provides excellent templates and questions to prompt reflection that teachers can adopt. As he argues in the last chapter, Steel believes that wisdom cannot be assessed like other forms of knowledge (e.g., multiple-choice tests) because its mode of inquiry is contemplative rather than rational. Wisdom consequently is not something that is taught, and thereby it cannot be assessed, but is learned through viewing reality differently in a form of passive receptivity. Paradoxically one can only learn about wisdom by not actively seeking it.

Each chapter focuses on a specific thinker and raises themes that the instructor can discuss with students. The first thinker examined is Plato whose dialogue Meno raises questions about sophistry, philosophy, tyranny, eros, friendship, and the difference between eristic and dialectic education. Steel points out to teachers that the dialogue is particularly a good model of how story-telling and appeals to one’s memory are effective ways to overcome students’ resistance to learning. Although contemporary education resembles the more sophistic rather than philosophic version, reading and teaching the Meno is an activity that can point students – and the teacher – towards wisdom.

The next chapter also includes Plato but with a focus on the dialogue, The Apology. Here the stakes between sophistry and philosophy have been raised with Socrates’ life on trial. Socrates shows that philosophy is a way of life that was inspired by divinity (the Oracle of Delphi) but can have dangerous consequences when one upsets the powerful by exposing their ignorance. Yet the love of wisdom motivates Socrates to encourage others to discover and share wisdom once found. In this sense, teaching is a communal activity where wisdom is shared–a notion that runs contrary to contemporary educational experts’ accounts of competency and individual assessment.

After Plato, Steel next turns to Isocrates, whom is called “the father of modern education.” Rather than being concerned with wisdom, Isocrates views teaching as a practical activity, particularly for achieving the glory and honor of one’s nation. This account of education continues today, shaping our expectations and assessment of a successful student. Inheriting Isocrates’ legacy are Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, the subject of the next two chapters. Bacon criticizes philosophy for not being able to provide answers and its inability to make progress in building knowledge, unlike his own project as outlined in his Novaum Organum where education is to improve human life by endowing it with new discoveries and powers. Descartes also criticizes traditional philosophy by seeking certainty in order to overcome his skepticism. The influence of both of these thinkers are still felt in today’s classroom where contemplative activities are no longer practiced and a positivist approach to teaching dominates.

In his chapter on John Locke, Steel shows how Locke’s emphasis on character development through good habits is still relevant today as it was in Locke’s time. But Steel is more skeptical about Locke’s account of human nature as a tabula rasa (blank slate) with only will and intellect guiding us to know a world where we can only know the ideas of things but not things-in-themselves. The reason Locke comes to this conclusion is that he banishes the contemplative aspect of intellect from his definition so all we are left with is instrument rationality.

On Rousseau, Steel starts with his four maxims of education from Emile: 1) children must be allowed to use all of their strength; 2) teachers must endeavor to help students in their weakness; 3) teachers should assist students only in what is useful and needed instead of their whims; and 4) teachers should distinguish which desires are natural and which are formed only by opinion and fancy. This “more freedom, less dominion” approach to education is particularly receptive to progressive education philosophies and the incorporation of technology and experiential learning into the classroom. At the root of Rousseau’s philosophy is amour-propre (self-love) and amour de soi (comparing one with others). Absence from this account is a view of love that is real, transcendent, and affirms the goodness of one’s existence. Instead with Rousseau we have the virtues of pity or compassion to inculcate in students with therapeutic exercises that promote hollow experiences and abstract ideas.

Although Steel does not make this connection, the influence of Rousseau can be seen in John Dewey’s philosophy of education, the subject of the next chapter. For Dewey, education is to promote democracy by supporting inquiry-based learning (i.e., the adoption of the scientific method) for the Baconian goal to master the world. The teacher is to promote educational experiences in the classroom that are only in practical nature. This philosophy informs contemporary education today, especially in the push of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, with the humanities banished.

Steel’s next thinker is Maria Montessori who views teaching as the art of seeing where the teacher acts as part scientist and part mystic. A teacher sees by humbling him or herself, leaving the ego behind, and help children become active in their understanding of the world. According to Steel, Montessori’s art of seeing recovers the contemplative attitude that is missing in Dewey’s and other modern accounts.

The final two thinkers Steel examine are Jean Piaget and Jacques Maritain. Piaget developed a constructive account of education where the internal consistency of one’s values and ideas are more important (coherence theory) than the correspondence of those values and ideas with reality (correspondence theory). The rejection of reality as it exists leads to ideological indoctrination and an expulsion of Socratic wisdom in the classroom. By contrast, Jacques Maritain affirms a contemplative approach to wisdom while retaining the best aspects of progressive education (e.g., making education more experiential and relevant to students). Crucial to Maritain’s philosophy of education is the centrality of the person and the liberal arts. With Maritain we have the ideal blend of practical education and contemplative activity.

Strangely, Steel skips medieval accounts of education, although Augustine, Aquinas, and other Christian thinkers are mentioned throughout the book. One possible explanation is the book is aimed at those who teach in the public schools rather than the parochial system; another might be that medieval philosophers have little influence in contemporary educational and pedagogical debates today. Nevertheless, this is a small criticism to an otherwise important and accessible work. For those who want to recover wisdom in the teaching of our children today, Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom is a work you should consult.


Also see the review of “The Pursuit of Wisdom and Happiness in Education.”

Lee Trepanier

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Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science, Department Chair, and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).