Clash of Ideologies: What’s Driving Your “School of Thought”? | 6 Min Read

Sept. 2, 2021, and June 13, 2024

Nietzsche may actually be alive, ironically, and thriving at schools and newspapers. The T-shirt that was a huge seller that read — “Nietzsche is dead, God” — may have got it all wrong. I have noticed recently that schools have started abandoning a document that used to be quite common called “A Statement of Philosophy.” It was usually written by an Academic Dean and had rarely been updated except every 10 years when the rigmarole of accreditation required it. This may be a mistake and I would like to explain why.

Let’s start with a few sample questions that you could ask your communities to test whether they are philosophically on the same page:

Question 1: Please choose the missing word that most corresponds with your view.

An important role of education at our school is to help students ______ their identity

  • Discover
  • Create
  • None of the above — Please fill in why in a few short sentences

Question 2: Please choose the missing word that most corresponds with your view.

An important role of education at our school is to help students learn values that are _________

  • Universal
  • Culturally acceptable today
  • Useful from our experiences
  • None of the above — Please fill in why in a few short sentences

Question 3: Please choose the missing word that most corresponds with your view.

Our reality is defined by ________

  • Facts and reason
  • Our interpretations, personal narratives, and experiences
  • None of the above — Please fill in why in a few short sentences

These questions have been constructed because they provide insight into the “world view” of your communities. I am not suggesting that you are looking for a homogeneous response, but I am suggesting that the range of responses will provide valuable information on how aligned with or enabling of diversity your policies, practices, pedagogy, and curriculum are.

The “Modern World” is generally defined as a period beginning somewhere around 1650 and ending somewhere around 1950: it was defined by science, facts or reason, strong institutions, established power structures, particularly at a class level, in career or family hierarchies, and by the established sources (gatekeepers) who controlled information. The eruptions of conflicts the world over further embedded these needs for societal control. Schools very much reflected these elements, and so did teaching practice and curriculum that tended to be updated for the latest knowledge, but sequence and order were kept paramount, as they are still today.

The Post-Modern world emerged after the world wars, at a time of relative peace, with a particular spurt of philosophical growth in the 1970s after the ructions of the sexual revolution and the Vietnam War. The established realities that accompanied relatively static cultures were replaced by the exposure that globalization and consumerism offered to diverse realities and choices. Established career paths were replaced by greater movement, and the knowledge and facts that held water for previous narratives became open to challenge. No wonder then that Nietzsche came into vogue, and his statements like “God is dead” and “There are no facts, only interpretations” became widely known. Existentialism pre-dated post-modernism but has found great overlap and influence over the movement.

We see Post-Modern practice in schools in many areas including the emphasis on the importance of diversity and identity, the emphasis on building self-esteem and social-emotional learning, and the importance of choice and pathways to construct realities and identities. Also, entering the space was a school of thought that resembled post-modernists in their rejection of reason as a foundation for reality called Pragmatism, with its best-known advocate being John Dewey. For Dewey and the pragmatists, your experience and sustained inquiry defined reality and created values when they served useful purposes. We see this emphasis in schools with inquiry-driven approaches, project-based learning, experiential education, and more.

These labels are useful only because they put some of the recent outcries into context: “Believe in Science,” “Fake News,” “Facts Matter,” “Gender is not fixed; it’s a social construct,” “Your Truth,” “My Identity Matters.” What has happened, in my opinion, is that in the last 20 years these movements have finally come into conflict and tension, driven by the rapid movement of information through mass media, globalization, and cultural exchange. In the middle of this melting pot are schools, teachers, school boards, parents, and others that are coming from different “schools of thought.” Some of these schools of thought are reflective of one’s own education or professional training or faith. With philosophy rarely taught in schools, many lack much context for the emergence of belief systems that they have adopted, because they were simply embedded in practice at places they attended.

Many different schools of thought have co-existed in schools: the different forms of idealism exist in many flavors today, from the classical idealism of Socrates using the Socratic method in the search for absolute truth to religious idealism at faith-based schools. You may find greater adherence to modernism in the Science department or to post-modernism in the Performing Arts department or to pragmatism within the Board or in your Entrepreneurship courses. Consumerism has been central to Post-Modernist approaches and this has simply increased the complexity of co-existing philosophies. And this is good, so long as we can manage the rough edges or tensions as this complexity likely increases.

Many schools are, for example, exploring how to implement the increasing importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity created by the Black Lives Matter protests; others are stressing Social Emotional Learning in response to the incredible stresses created for students and teachers by remote learning and COVID-19. Taking stock will help navigate the delicate balancing act ahead as the velocity of change places incredible burdens on school structure, pedagogy, and curriculum.

This is a very difficult subject, so I reached out for a diversity of opinions from my wider network on the content above:

As school leaders, we should want the different answers to the questions you’re asking because those differences are reflective of the students and families in our schools. We want kids to learn from and with people who can help them develop multiple or balanced perspectives. Where schools struggle with alignment is at the intersection of asking people to subjugate parts of themselves either for the greater good or the brand. That’s an individual decision. 

We offer jobs and people take jobs for many reasons, and values alignment is not always at the top of the list. So, the hiring process has to be tied in here. Schools change their values, or at least the applications of their values. This healthy evolution, at whatever pace it occurs, impacts everyone — students, families, employees, alumni — who might have signed on for one type of school only to have the ground shift under their feet.

Ron Cino, Laguna Blanca Head of School (CA); former Head of School at Worcester Academy (MA).

If on reflection you find that you do not have a clear institutional statement of philosophy, you should still do the work to determine if this is a result of conflicting impulses, in which case you have essentially adopted a pragmatic stance, willing to appeal to past philosophies when useful.  You would do well to keep in mind too that for most parents, pragmatism rules the day.  Very few families are choosing schools because they want their children to be aligned philosophically with the mission of the school; instead, they see the school as the best alternative for an education or as the avenue to college admissions even if it means putting up with divergent philosophical or intellectual views.  In America, we are all pragmatists first.”

Ray Ravaglia, Chief Learning Officer of the non-profit Opportunity Education (MI) which supports 1700 schools worldwide.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.

Peter Mott, former NEASC International Accreditation leader responded to this article with a quote from William Butler Yeats, writing in 1919 at a time of great uncertainty after the first World War

Sanje Ratnavale

Sanje founded OESIS in 2012 and serves as the President of what has grown to become the leading network for innovation at independent schools: the acronym OESIS grew from the initial focus on Online Education Strategies for Independent Schools. He has held senior administrative positions at independent schools including Associate Head of School at a K-12 school for seven years, High School Principal for three years, and CFO for seven years. Prior to making a switch to education, Sanje spent 15 years in venture capital, investment banking, and senior C-level (CEO, COO, CFO) management. He was educated at Christ Church, Oxford University (B.A. and M.A. in Law/Jurisprudence). Sanje is based out of Santa Monica.

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