Where Education’s Civic Aims meet its Epistemic Aims

Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL

Among the aims of education are civic aims: developing character traits, such as civility and neighbourliness, that enable students to become responsible, engaged citizens, able to contribute to the common good of society. These can be developed through activities such as volunteering, service and community engagement.[1] The civic aims of education, while important, are surely at best secondary to its epistemic aims – those concerned with the kinds of knowledge and understanding education aims to provide. Where and how do the civic and epistemic aims of education meet?

This question is addressed in an article by the philosopher of education Emily Robertson, ‘The Epistemic Aims of Education’.[2] Robertson offers an account of the ways in which knowledge is a social enterprise. Much of our knowledge relies on others: the articles we receive from the news rely on journalists and fact-checkers; we often rely on the judgements made by experts; and at school and university, we receive most of our knowledge from our teachers and lecturers. Even autodidacts rely on others for knowledge – for example, the authors of the books they study. Knowledge is never acquired, developed or disseminated in a vacuum. Curricula are, Robertson writes, the products of ‘communities of inquirers’ (p. 13). As the philosopher of education Catherine Z. Elgin puts it, ‘Understanding and knowledge are collective accomplishments’.[3]

Yet, another important aim of education, as discussed in an earlier blog post, is to develop independent thinking skills. When acknowledging the importance of developing such skills and the social dimension of knowledge, a possible tension emerges: how do we balance the gaining of knowledge with becoming autonomous, independent thinkers? In other words, how does one learn to think for oneself when knowledge depends on others?

As Robertson articulates the tension:

On the one hand, it seems plausible that educators should teach students to think for themselves. On the other hand, we live in a world in which reliance on the testimony and expert judgment of others is pervasive. (p. 13)

Independent thinking involves being able to justify one’s beliefs and the beliefs of others on the basis of good reasoning. It requires judging for oneself the information received from others and knowing when to be more or less critical of the accounts given by others. It involves distinguishing reliable testimonial evidence from mere hearsay and identifying what counts as credible sources of information – for example, distinguishing real news from fake news.

Such skills involve an understanding of the social dimensions of knowledge. To be an independent thinker is to critically assess the information we receive from the many ‘social pathways’, as the philosopher Alvin Goldman puts it, that lead to knowledge.[4] Knowledge production involves social and political conditions. We need the skills to identify where, for example, there might be instances of implicit bias which affect the veracity of information we are given.

Historical narratives, for example, are told by particular people with particular perspectives within particular cultural and historical conditions. This should not be taken to imply that historical truth is merely relative. It is, rather, to acknowledge that in gaining accurate historical knowledge, we need to be able to identify the relevance of such factors to the historical accounts we are given. We need to be able to distinguish, for instance, propaganda from information that comes from a politically independent source; we need to be critical of, for example, accounts of the women’s suffrage movement written only by men. Without such abilities and awareness, we can end up with, to use a notion coined and developed by the philosopher Miranda Fricker, ‘epistemic injustice’: where certain knowledge we claim to have is the result of instances of injustice, such as oppression or exploitation.[5]

Such a critical stance also needs to be applied to ourselves (p. 24). We are among our sources of knowledge; we tell ourselves narratives of the events that unfold in our lives, yet we can be inaccurate autobiographers. We are all capable of confabulation and self-deception; we can fail to acknowledge our responsibility in certain actions; and we can romanticise or excessively self-criticise our pasts and our characters. Being an independent thinker requires being self-critical.

Self-criticism also involves attention to the social and political conditions of knowledge. The various privileges many of us enjoy can prevent us from seeing, for example, instances of institutional prejudice that arise from deeply embedded prejudicial power structures, or can prevent us from see their full significance, potentially leading to epistemic injustice (p. 27).

Taking into account the essentially social nature of knowledge and the importance of developing independent thinking skills, and that both of these involve attention to the social and political conditions of knowledge, brings us to where education’s epistemic aims meet its civic ones. We could say that the ultimate epistemic aim of education is to reach a coherent set of justified, true beliefs about the world, reached by exercising intellectual virtues such as skills in sound reasoning, critical thinking, rational judgement and careful deliberation. If such processes require attention to the social and political conditions of knowledge, then meeting the ultimate epistemic aim of education requires the development of civic virtues that prepare one to be a responsibly engaged citizen, aware of the structures underpinning society, including those of social injustice.

This is where education’s epistemic aims meet its civic aims. Robertson writes:

[G]iven that knowledge creation and dissemination is a social enterprise, individuals should … understand their role as citizens, as well as knowledge producers, in supporting effective and just social pathways to knowledge. Here, consideration of the epistemic ends of education begins to merge with civic education. (pp. 13-4)

The ability to identify possible instances of implicit bias is among the ways in which Robertson connects the social dimension of knowledge with civic education. Drawing upon a definition of what it means to be an ‘independent thinker’ put forward by the philosopher C. A. J. Coady, as the person ‘who exercises a controlling intelligence over the input she receives from the normal sources of information whether their basis be individual or communal’,[6] Robertson writes:

Understanding the social conditions of knowledge production, including the relationship between knowledge and power, is part of being an independent thinker in this sense. (p. 13)

Developing Coady’s account of what it means to be an independent thinker, Robertson continues:

… I would add to Coady’s account that there is a social and political dimension to becoming an independent thinker: individuals should be taught to understand the importance of supporting social institutions that make us all less gullible. Here, consideration of the epistemic ends of education becomes an aspect of civic education. (p. 29)

Being an independent thinker involves ‘the need for assessments of the social context of knowledge production and dissemination’ (p. 29). The ability to identify where social injustice might cause a source of knowledge to be unreliable is part of what it means to be an independent thinker, capable of rationally justifying beliefs.

What is our responsibility, as educators, in light of the balance that needs to be struck between the social dimension of knowledge and the importance of teaching students to be independent thinkers? Robertson argues that educators have a responsibility to develop students’ ‘cognitive autonomy’ – a ‘responsibility to help individuals think for themselves’ (p. 13). This involves enabling students to justify beliefs for themselves (p. 12). Students should develop a stock of knowledge consisting of a unified set of cohesive, true beliefs which they have reached by exercising intellectual virtues such as rational judgement.

Our aim should not merely be for students to have a set of true beliefs, but for them to be able to justify those beliefs. Students should develop the skills to ‘decide for themselves what to believe’ (p. 17), by developing cognitive skills in producing and evaluating knowledge (p. 20). That requires teaching the justification behind true beliefs, as well as the true beliefs themselves, so that students learn how to justify their beliefs and critically evaluate the justification for beliefs given by others.

As Robertson writes:

Educators should seek not merely to transmit knowledge but also to put students into a position where they can … decide for themselves what to believe. It would be a poor education that transmitted a fixed body of facts without also developing the resources for arriving at new beliefs and evaluating old ones… Thus, educators rightly want students to have access to the justificatory grounds for their beliefs.’ (p. 17)

Providing adequate justificatory grounds for beliefs involves adopting an appropriate critical stance towards knowledge claims. That requires, among other things, attention to the social and political dimensions of knowledge, with an awareness of issues such as implicit bias and social injustice, and how these can impact justification.

So, in striking the balance between becoming an independent thinker and developing one’s stock of knowledge, one also needs to develop the skills to become a responsible citizen. This is one of the points where the epistemic aims of education meet its civic aims.

[1] On civic virtues and where they function within a framework for character education, see the Jubilee Centre’s ‘Framework
for Character Education in Schools’

[2] Emily Robertson, ‘The Epistemic Aims of Education’, in Harvey Siegel (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Education (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). All citations with no referent are to this article.

[3] Catherine Z. Elgin, Considered Judgment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 116 (quoted in Robertson, p. 13).

[4] Alvin Goldman, Pathways to Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) (quoted in Robertson, p. 13).

[5] Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). See Robertson, pp. 26-7.

[6] C. A. J. Coady, ‘Testimony, Observation, and “Autonomous Knowledge” in B. K. Matilal and A. Chakrabarti (ed.), Knowing from Words: Western and Indian Philosophical Analysis of Understanding and Testimony (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1994), p. 248 (quoted in Robertson, p. 13).

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