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What Is Education?

One day in 1938, John Dewey addressed a room of professional educators and urged them to take up the task of “finding out just what education is.” Reading this lecture in the late 1940s, Philip W. Jackson took Dewey’s charge to heart and spent the next sixty years contemplating his words. The stimulating result of a lifetime of thinking about educating, What Is Education? is a profound philosophical exploration of how we transmit knowledge in human society and how we think about accomplishing that vital task.
Most contemporary approaches to education follow a strictly empirical track, aiming to discover pragmatic solutions for teachers and school administrators. Jackson argues that we need to learn not just how to improve on current practices but also how to think about what education means—in short, we need to answer Dewey by constantly rethinking education from the ground up. Guiding us through the many facets of Dewey’s comments, Jackson also calls on Hegel, Kant, and Paul Tillich to shed light on how a society does, can, and should transmit truth and knowledge to successive generations. Teasing out the implications in these thinkers’ works ultimately leads Jackson to the conclusion that education is at root a moral enterprise.
At a time when schools increasingly serve as a battleground for ideological contests, What Is Education? is a stirring call to refocus our minds on what is for Jackson the fundamental goal of education: making students as well as teachers—and therefore everyone—better people.

136 pages | 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 | © 2011

Education: Education--General Studies, Philosophy of Education


“This is some of the very best educational—or philosophical—writing I have read. Bearing the hallmarks of a modern classic, What Is Education? is a remarkable essay, sometimes personal, always scholarly, about Philip Jackson, about Jackson reading Dewey, about the nature of reading and interpretation, and about the aims of education as a cultural and truth-generating activity and as a personal quest. In the process, Jackson discusses different kinds of truth, from factual to conceptual to speculative, moral, and personal, and then uses this discussion to develop a vision for the renewal of education. Through his use of philosophy and pedagogy, and even in his innovative interpretations of poets such as Wallace Stevens, Jackson displays the qualities Dewey promoted, namely a truly engaged, inquiring mind.”

Walter Feinberg, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

What Is Education? is a personal reflection by an educational thinker of stature about important elements of education that teachers should think about to better ground their craft and to get full satisfaction from their work. Philip Jackson’s engaging style mixes selective forays into the work of Dewey, Tillich, Kant, and Hegel with a rich understanding of how teachers do, can, and should work with students in their classrooms. Rather than presenting education already rethought, Jackson’s book will stimulate and enable readers to rethink it for themselves—it has the potential to become a Strunk and White for the practicing teacher.”

Robert O. McClintock, Teachers College, Columbia University

“Anyone might think that it would be easy to answer the question ‘What is education?’ But Jackson believes the question is not empirical or definitional but philosophical….Jackson ruminates on ‘truth,’ the preconditions for education, essence and existence, subject matter, and the pursuit of perfect, and argues that education is fundamentally a moral enterprise….thought provoking.” 


“True to its claims, the project resists offering packaged and conclusive answers for quick consumption and incorporation, but instead chooses to highlight a path towards greater inquiry in pursuit of a more perfect knowledge of education. The gem at the heart of this project is that Jackson’s attentive treatment of his subject transforms those readers who have anticipated ready resolution to the title’s query and precludes them from finding these stimulating results at all disappointing. Those of us who travel the trail of study suggested by Jackson’s work discover nourishing encouragement to take Dewey’s small question seriously, recognizing the deep and sophisticated value in committing ourselves to the task of grasping with our fellows at the great shape of education.”

Winston C. Thompson | Journal of the Philosophy of Education

What is Education? presents a fascinating exploration of different ways of thinking about education, and it is arguably the reflective quality of the writing that makes the discussion so engaging. As a reader, it feels as if you are watching the author’s ideas unfold before you; the work that Philip Jackson shares spans more than 60 years, and the book is structured in a way that enables readers to keep pace with how his thinking has developed over this time relatively easily.”

Claire Williams, student reviewer | Times Higher Education

Table of Contents

1 Dewey’s Parting Words
2 Trafficking in Truth
3 Preconditions of Education
4 Unifying Essence and Existence
5 Making Subjects Matter
6 In Pursuit of Perfection
7 Education as a Moral Enterprise

Further Reading


Association of American Publishers: PROSE Book Award

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