Education & Philosophy

David Hansen on Ethical Visions of Education

In February 2007, David Hansen lectured at the Center on the lives and work of some of the most dynamic and courageous educators of the twentieth century. Hansen, who is professor and director of Philosophy and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, also proposed a cosmopolitan approach to education as a response to our historical moment. Following his presentation, Ann Diller, professor and director of Doctoral Studies in Philosophy of Education at the University of New Hampshire, responded with reflections on the challenges and possibilities embodied in the concept of cosmopolitanism; and the audience engaged in a lively dialogue with Dr. Hansen. This article by Patti Marxsen reports on the proceedings.

Introducing the lecture, Center executive director Virginia Benson quoted David Hansen’s definition of educational philosophy as “an approach in which students can think about this 2500 year-old practice of teaching and ask themselves what ideals and motives draw them to the work and help sustain them through both good times and bad.” Noting that Hansen’s work has been focused on the moral dimensions of teaching and learning, Benson described his larger project as one of re-imagining the humanistic roots of education in our own time. Among his many publications, said Benson, Hansen edited the Center-developed book, Ethical Visions of Education: Philosophies in Practice (Teachers College Press, 2007).

Hansen’s Presentation

Referring to the ten educators discussed in Ethical Visions as “disparate thinkers,” Hansen explored the key philosophical differences between some of the best-known figures in the book. For example, he explained that both Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori Method, and Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf Schools, based their thought on a highly-structured “stage theory” of human development in which is it believed that all human beings pass through identifiable stages of physical, emotional, moral, and cognitive growth. By contrast, American pragmatist John Dewey and Tsunesaburo Makiguchi of Japan both rejected the idea of stages, arguing instead that “human development is better understood in holistic rather than linear terms.”

Another area in which differences were examined was the relationship between education and politics. By way of example, Hansen referred to 1913 Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore of India, “who argued that education’s purpose is to bring people in the world into greater harmony.” While seemingly unarguable, Hansen went on to explain that, “others in the book would raise questions” about Tagore’s point of view. The work of John Dewey, settlement house founder Jane Addams, and Paulo Freire of Brazil, for example, emphasizes and exemplifies what Hansen referred to as “the political potential in education to render human affairs more just, more free and meaningful” by empowering people to engage in political life in the here and now. For them, Tagore’s outlook might be necessary to a philosophy of education but not sufficient. Bringing the dialogical spirit of the book to life, Hansen proposed that Tagore, Makiguchi, and W. E. B. DuBois “would reply [to Addams, Dewey, and Freire] by suggesting that political transformation in the direction of democracy certainly constitutes a profound value that they not only endorse” but that they strive toward in different ways. But they would suggest that unless education is fueling children and youth with creative imagination, a sense of beauty and harmony, and other related values, political transformation could in fact backfire.

Cosmopolitanism validates all human experience and all contacts one has in the world as “not foreign.”Building on this theme of difference, both in individual experience and in the philosophical underpinnings of education, the second part of Dr. Hansen’s talk was devoted to the idea of cosmopolitan education. Linking this idea to “the world of humanity” suggested by the word cosmos , and tracing the roots of cosmopolitan education from classical thought through the work of John Dewey, Hansen proposed an approach to education that validates all human experience and all contacts one has in the world as “not foreign.” In other words, this approach to education not only acknowledges or accepts difference but, in a profound way, is shaped and energized by it.

Returning to the necessary elements of an educational philosophy as explained in his introduction to Ethical Visions, Hansen described more specific aspects of cosmopolitan education as (1) an expression of values, (2) a moral compass, and (3) an abiding engine of ideas about teaching, curriculum, learning, and more. Firstly, he explained that “It would help equip people not to recoil from differences, as if the fact of difference were itself something foreign to the world.” Secondly, he said that a cosmopolitan perspective would allow curricular material to be understood as “a human inheritance bequeathed to the human beings in our time” that must be continually interpreted and reinterpreted by subsequent generations. This focus on ethics, morality, and “making meaning” would be encouraged by a continual expansion of ideas and would make for a more open-minded and open-hearted exchange between students and teachers. “In short, a cosmopolitan approach to education welcomes every opportunity to cultivate the ability to learn from all the contacts of life and to appreciate that however strange—or, indeed, alien—some human contact may feel to us, it’s not foreign to the human tapestry, but needs to be reckoned with.”

Response and Reflection by Ann Diller

Dr. Diller began with a quote from Parker Palmer:

We fear encounters in which the other is free to be itself, to speak its own truth, to tell us what we may not wish to hear. We want those encounters on our own terms so we can control their outcomes; so that they will not threaten our view of our world, or of our self.

Building on this emphasis on otherness, “strangeness,” and diversity, she posed a question: What do these hypotheses say about entering conversations with other people? Clearly, as Hansen suggested in his talk, there can be no guarantee of final agreement about facts or values where such diversity is present. Thus, it becomes necessary to have “modest but important” ambitions for our conversations that recognize the value of conversation in itself. Furthermore, she warned that we are likely to find error as well as parts of the truth.

“Cosmopolitanism is an ideal, not a solution,” she said. “It’s a challenge and an adventure. It means that we stay open-hearted and that we don’t foreclose on our curiosity about others, including oppressors.” In this context, she posed a series of questions: Who counts as a stranger, for whom, where, and when? When do we experience ourselves as strangers? When is our curiosity engaged and expanded? What pulls us away from being curious? She also noted that we cannot forget that “difference is not just difference,” but that suffering and oppression are closely related to how we deal with difference and are, in a sense, the predictable outcome of resisting difference. Turning to Ethical Visions of Education, she closed by reinforcing David Hansen’s insights drawn from working closely with the ideas of the “ten disparate figures,” especially the idea that our most effective and creative efforts often grow out of encountering difficulty and doubt.


The dialogue that followed focused on a variety of themes inspired by Hansen’s explication of the idea of a cosmopolitan approach to education. While the over-arching topic was the meaning of education in our time, questions and comments included discussion centered on an understanding of “happiness” as an aim of education, the importance of a sense of equilibrium between social concerns and the growth of the individual, the challenges of confronting otherness, and the apparent conflict embodied in the cosmopolitan perspective of striving for a kind of perfectionism while remaining open to a wide range of secular and spiritual experience.

Acknowledging that “happiness is hard,” Hansen led the discussion toward an understanding of Aristotle’s dynamic concept of eudaimonia, an idea of happiness that encompasses a flourishing of the person in many dimensions: aesthetically, intellectually, and morally. But while individual happiness is important, Hansen noted that the idea of cosmopolitan education is as much a social perspective as it is an individual perspective. Furthermore, he pointed out that a cosmopolitan perspective implies a kind of social solidarity based on respect for individuals whose differences are evident and significant. This theme naturally opened a discussion on the importance of overcoming feelings of strangeness and otherness in order for solidarity and social transformation to occur. In this context, Hansen referenced the work of Ian Hacking who argues that we live and act under descriptions. “Hacking’s vision of education would be to help all children and youth become describers and to keep re-describing until they find a description that they can inhabit.” In the end, the cosmopolitan perspective allows for many possibilities, many “descriptions,” that—taken together—offer the human experience of growth and expansion that is essential to a moral and ethical education.