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

reviewed by j. Zack

coverTitle: Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom: A Practical Guide for Education Philosophy Courses
Author(s): Sean Steel
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433145391, Pages: 382, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

Reading Sean Steel’s new book, Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom: A Practical Guide for Education Philosophy Courses, was a refreshing sojourn away from the general methods course (with its emphasis on standards and technique) that I was teaching at the time. In this impressive foray into western thinkers who have shaped educational thought and the institution of schooling, Steel’s message to beginning educators to take up teaching as a way of life and, like the true philosopher, create spaces where students will be empowered to engage in a “loving inquiry into what is,” resonates clearly throughout the chapters.  

Written in a conversational style, Steel’s book takes us from Plato’s dialogues, Bacon’s scientific method, Descartes’s positivism, Locke’s moral education, and Rousseau’s romanticism to Dewey’s progressivism, Montessori’s seeing the child, and Piaget’s constructivism. Along the way, Steel discusses contemporary public school structures, curricula, and reform movements, rooting these pedagogical choices and manifestations in the ancient and modern philosophers he discusses. The depth of knowledge he has of these classic educational thinkers is impressive. Those who have already read many of these philosophers’ writings and studied their impact on western educational systems will still have plenty to learn from this account.

Steel’s philosophical reasoning as he talks about these individuals’ worldviews is logical. He is able to both criticize some of their notions and paradigms and provide insight into how their ideas have sometimes been misinterpreted. He skillfully builds upon each philosophy in a coherent fashion, and also draws upon his theological background throughout the work. Despite these wide-ranging sources, he always takes us back to what these ideas mean for teachers in classrooms. Indeed, his time teaching in public schools has served him well in understanding the climate of contemporary education.

Steel’s effort to make this reading a practical guide for student teachers as they study the development of western educational thought is earnest. The introduction is a guide for these beginning teachers and instructors on how to interact with his book. Here he invites his readers to become genuine philosophers who take up the pursuit of wisdom as a lifestyle and underlines the active and contemplative nature of the true teacher/philosopher. In the first chapter, he describes the mechanism by which that journey may commence, namely reflective journaling. He provides helpful insights as to how such journaling may help educators live “the examined life” extolled by the ancient Greek philosophers and think deeply about their students, curriculum, and learning communities. The appendices provide myriad journaling activities as well as assessment tools for both instructors and student. While the journal prompts align to the content and tenor of the book, the assessment reflections relate to the goals of the teacher education program where Steel taught philosophy of education courses. Ironically, these “competencies” address some of the educational fads and practices he criticizes teacher education programs and school administrations for thoughtlessly adopting.

Steel has a lot to say about elements of schools that work against the authentic, philosophic learning that he endorses. He contends that contemporary schools and teacher preparation programs favor scientific, Cartesian knowledge that is concerned with the particular as opposed to philosophical understanding that is interested in the totality of being, the love of wisdom, and the nature of the divine. He argues that in their quest for certainty, right answers, and objective truth, educational communities have divested themselves from aporetic learning, where confusion and perplexity are embraced as needed qualities to meaningful learning. I particularly agree with his sentiment that the contemporary determination to increasingly diagnose and assess students (both formatively and summatively) in order to obtain data on student growth and determine future curricular directions, while well-intentioned, diverts learning from the most meaningful endeavors. Steel contends that people are people when he sarcastically refers to talk of “21st century learning.” If anything has changed, he suggests, it is our modern technological society, where the means is more important than the ends, and technique and technology are favored over deep learning.

While I agree with many of his critiques of contemporary schooling, he wrongly derides several contemporary educational movements. From the onset of the book, he bemoans the replacement of the study of educational philosophy with more specialized foci: special education, ELL, and LGBTQ education to name a few. I am not certain the study of these salient issues in education precludes approaching them in a truly philosophic manner. Steel also questions the authentic implementation and worth of such best practices as inquiry-based learning, cooperative experiential education, and individualized curriculum. He is also skeptical of how dispositions are nurtured in schools, critical of collaborative learning, and contends that the liberal tradition is largely dead. Though we may not always be in accord, Steel never fails to give teachers genuine issues to address, including authentic assessment, banking and industrial models of education, the place of work and play in schools, and character education.

The parts that are most impactful, recurring throughout the text, are when he asks his readers to consider big, essential questions: Does school help young people cultivate an appreciation of their own lives, and of their own existence? What responsibilities do we bear as teachers for the manner in which our students take up inquiries into what is true? My larger issue with the work, however, is its fidelity to religious studies. In his final chapters, he asserts that the pursuit of wisdom must be invested in what he calls the totality of things, which must involve God and the immortal soul. The secular humanist in me is all for comparative religious studies, and the democratic developmentalist in me is all for civic-mindedness, but I do not believe that a cult-like approach to the pursuit of wisdom is the path to better learning environments. I instead would recommend balance and a guarding against all that is dogmatic.

In the end, I would definitely use Sean Steel’s Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom to teach a philosophy of education course. I would use it because I believe Mr. Steel has started a philosophical dialogue, both broad and deep, that would have beginning educators considering the most significant aspects of teaching, learning, and contemporary schooling. Though we may not agree on all the issues broached, his conversational, rhetorical style invites us to participate in the type of deep, meaningful contemplation he endorses.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22523, Date Accessed: 10/19/2018 3:05:07 PM

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