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Idealist and Realist Theories: Questioning and Theorizing about Education

Controversies in education are often different from those in other fields. The premises of ideals of "desirable education" are made in an instant, and from these derive judgements on the status quo, complaints about the current state of education, and so on. Ideals and expectations of what we want education to be and what we think it must be are an integral part of controversies in education. On the other hand, likewise there is no shortage of "realistic theories" that accept the status quo. There is a certain kind of defiance in the idea that "Exam-focused education is a necessary evil" and in the decision to include at least a little instruction useful for taking exams in order to help one's own pupils succeed.

Unfortunately, little dialogue takes place between idealistic and realistic educational theories. Idealism judges realism to be "a resigned acceptance that pursues no ideal and only supports the status quo." Realism dismisses idealism as "impractical theorizing." In fact, controversies run in parallel courses. That is to say, idealism and realism are in conflict even in individuals, and there are many people who cannot decide between one or the other.

However, when controversies are settled, the resolutions do not necessarily rest neatly between the two opposing opinions. This is something unique to education. In the business world, a goal with a concrete numerical value (such as a sales goal) may be agreed upon as a compromise between the ideal and the real, and a realistic, feasible goal or means is sought in order to achieve an ideal with the greatest possible limit within the restrictions imposed by reality. In contrast, in education, conclusions reached by this kind of compromise are quick to change. It is easy to reach conclusions that are influenced by a so-called "double standard" in which the ideal and the real remain separate.

Let me offer one example. New summary guidelines for study were announced in the schools: in December of last year for the elementary and middle schools, and in March of this year in the high schools. As in the present, the revision's keywords were cultivating the "ability to grow," and education that "values individuality." And, as a concrete measure, "integrated study classes" were implemented. Just from looking at words like "rich humanity," and nurturing "the ability to learn and think for oneself," one can see that the idealists have had a victory. On the other hand, if one takes a look at the actual revisions made in the content of lessons, it turns out that the class time devoted to traditional subjects has been greatly decreased. Part of the content that was formerly studied in elementary school is postponed until middle school, some of that of middle school is postponed until high school (and probably that of high school is even put off until university?). The figures expressed as number of class hours and credits strongly reflect realist educational theory. From 2002, in order to fully implement a five day week in the elementary and middle schools, it is absolutely necessary to reduce the number of class hours. From the eyes of the realists, these revisions are a concrete response.

A distant link between idealistic and realistic theories is the notion of "yutori" or extra time for unstructured activities and flexibility. It is thought that nurturing the "ability to grow" and "individuality" is a necessary condition of imbuing children with "yutori." With "yutori" as a go-between, educational idealists and realists can make a happy union and here we find an educational double standard.

Reducing the number of class hours in no way guarantees the creation of "yutori." This is to say nothing of how reducing the number of class hours would cultivate the "ability to grow," or "individuality." While it is said that "integrated study classes" might possibly do this, precisely how does this relate to the "ability to grow"? It has been said that dealing with these unspecified matters is to be left up to the "ingenuity" of schools and teachers, which only brings into being another "magic word." It is not that we must change reality in order to realize our ideals, but that idealistic theories of education simply whitewash the demands of reality and the risks of making changes.

The introduction of measures like the reduction of class hours and "integrated study classes" may change real schools, while keeping separate the realization of ideals like the "ability to grow" and "individuality." In other words, ideals are ideals, and reality is reality. They are parallel courses, whose logical extremes are resigned realism and empty idealism. Why can't they resume a productive dialogue? Education's way of asking questions itself is under question.

This article is a translation of
Kariya, Takehiko. 1999. Idealist and Realist Theories: Questioning and Theorizing about Education (in Japanese). Gekkan shinken nyusu chugakusei ban Vol. 241 (published by Benesse Corporation): 6.


Takehiko Kariya
Sociologist of education; Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University. Books include "Gakko tte Nandaroo" (What is School?) published by Kodansha Publishing Company.
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