Knowledge is a difficult philosophic concept to define. The nature of knowledge and how it is achieved has been a subject of particular interest to philosophers and educators alike for literally thousands of years. From the ancient Greeks like Socrates and his student Plato, to postmodernists like Jacques Derrida, the question has received as many answers as there are people to form the question, though it would seem that each century has its favorite way of addressing the issue. Amongst educators in the modern era, it is generally agreed that children are impressionable and possessing little more than instinct when they are born; that knowledge is placed there by the people in their lives and acquired through the experiences that they have. Philosophically, it is interesting to note the Kantian flavor of this belief, and it is useful to compare it to the arguments of postmodern philosophers who claim that knowledge itself is contingent upon the cultural and linguistic structures that are used to convey that knowledge.
Immanuel Kant lived in eighteenth century Germany and is generally considered by scholars to be not only a great philosopher but a founder of the scientific revolution. Kant addressed the issue of knowledge from the perspective of rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism is the idea that knowledge is gained by the individual through the application of reason. Reason is thus defined as the ability to think, to logically arrive at conclusions. Empiricism, on the other hand, is the view that knowledge stems from the individual’s experiences in the world. In science, then, this argument rests on the dichotomy between knowledge gained through the application of the mind and through the experiences of the senses.
Kant’s conclusion in this discussion was to take attention away from the knowledge that is gained and instead focus on the preconditions which make knowledge possible. He believed, contrary to the opinions of his contemporaries David Hume and Descartes, that there does exist a reality independent of the world of experience, and he calling this the world of the noumenal, meaning the world of things, according to their true essence, and of reality as it is in itself. The world of phenomena, on the other hand, was the world of things as they appear, the world that it known through experience.
It is obvious from this discussion that modern educators are deeply influenced by this philosophy. In schools throughout the country, the information that is presented to young children is done so from the assumption that what is being taught has an empirical truth that cannot be questioned. When the subjects of science, mathematics, and language are studied, there are clear right and wrong answers, and children are encouraged to strive for correctness. Never is the nature or truth of the information questioned, unless it is an issue of teacher knowledge. The entrenchment, then, of Kantian thinking, that there is knowledge that exists and that it is possible to achieve it either through experience or reason, is so firmly established in modern education that it is not even questioned by most educators.
Philosophers of the twenty-first century, on the other hand, no longer assert that there is an achievable body of knowledge that exists independent of the thinker. The postmodern era has brought with it relativism. This thought system is based on the idea that everything that can be experienced in any way is of relative truth and if there is an absolute truth that exists outside of the thinkers’ ability to think, it is totally unachievable and therefore irrelevant.
Postmodernists argue that since the individual must necessarily filter everything through the mind and senses, the unique combination of thinking and interpretation that that individual embodies will influence any new information that is processed, thus making it relative. A simple example to illustrate this point is to imagine a sibling group reminiscing about some past event, and each person remembers the event differently, to the extent that some accounts will not reconcile at all. All the people in the group experienced the same phenomenon, yet they all remember it completely differently and therefore have different knowledge of the event.
The application of a relativist perspective to education is perhaps one for which educators are not ready. To move to a position where not only the student’s knowledge is relative to their set of beliefs and experiences but that the teacher’s knowledge is similarly bound, would necessarily negate any objectivity in the educational process. The possibility for truth, rightness, and objectivity would simply no longer exist, and there is no doubt that this would turn the educational system upside down. Then again, maybe that would be a good thing.