Popper on Education, by Rafe Champion

This article was written by Ralf Champion and is published in his blog at the following address:
http://www.the-rathouse.com/RC_PopperEdu.html ,
from which it is transcribed here, with the authorization of its author.
Minor adjustments were made in the quotations from Popper’s books,
after comparing them, one by one, with the original texts.
No changes were made in Rafe Champion’s text.
[Eduardo Chaves]

“If I thought of a future,
I dreamt of one day founding a school in which young people could learn without boredom,
and would be stimulated to pose problems and discuss them;
a school in which no unwanted answers to unasked questions would have to be listened to;
in which one did not study for the sake of passing examinations”.

Karl Popper,
Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography
[Open Court Publishing Co., La Salle, IL, (1974) 1976, p. 40]


Popper trained as a schoolteacher and wrote his first book, Logik der Forschung (1934, [translated into English as] The Logic of Scientific Discovery, ([Basic Books, New York] 1959) in his spare time after he was employed teaching high school science and mathematics.

One would expect him to have some useful things to say about education, especially for scientists. He has not written at length on education although scattered passages in the text and notes of The Open Society and its Enemies [in 2 volumes, Vol. 1: “The Spell of Plato”, Vol. 2: “The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx and the Aftermath” (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1959, 5th edition, revised, 1966, first Princeton Paperback edition, 1971] contain some interesting comments. These are collected under three headings:

  • First; ethics and education;
  • Second, the problem of state control and indoctrination;
  • Third, science teaching and critical thinking.

For a wide-ranging critique of Plato’s political philosophy, see The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 1. (There is a condensed version of Open Society prepared by the author of this article, in the following URL: http://www.the-rathouse.com/OpenSocietyOnLIne/AATheProjectwithIndex.html.)

1. Ethical Education

On pp. 275-278 of Open Society, Vol. 2, Popper objects to the morality projected by historical studies of power politics which are mostly written to celebrate the victors. The hidden message in these accounts is that might is right, and that history belongs to those who win.

“And, indeed, our intellectual as well as our ethical education is corrupt. It is perverted by the admiration of brilliance, of the way things are said, which takes the place of critical appreciation of the things that are said (and the things that are done). It is perverted by the romantic idea of the splendour of the stage of History on which we are the actors. We are educated to act with an eye to the gallery.

The whole problem of educating man to a sane appreciation of his own importance relative to that of other individuals is thoroughly muddled by these ethics of fame and fate. . . . . Instead of a sober combination of individualism and altruism . . . — that is to say, instead of a position like ‘What really matters are human individuals, but I do not take this to mean that it is I who matter very much’ — a romantic combination of egoism and collectivism is taken for granted. That is to say, the importance of the self, of its emotional life and its ‘self-expression’ is romantically exaggerated. . . .

At the bottom of all this there is a real difficulty. While it is fairly clear . . .  that the politician should limit himself to fighting against evils, instead of fighting for ‘positive’ or ‘higher’ values, such as happiness, etc., the teacher, in principle, is in a different position. Although he should not impose his scale of ‘higher’ values upon his pupils he certainly should try to stimulate their interest in these values.  . . .  Thus there is something like a romantic or aesthetic element in education, such as should not enter politics. But though this is true in principle, it is hardly applicable to our educational system. For it presupposes a relationship of friendship between teacher and pupil, a relation which . . .  each party  must be free to end. . . .  The very number of pupils makes all this impossible in our schools [and indeed the choice of schools is severely restricted]. Accordingly, attempts to impose higher values not only become unsuccessful, but it must be insisted that they lead to harm. . . . And the principle that those who are entrusted to us must, before anything else, not be harmed, should be recognized to be just as fundamental for education as it is for medicine. ‘Do no harm’ (and, therefore, ‘give the young what they most urgently need, in order to become independent of us, and to be able to choose for themselves’) would be a very worthy aim for our educational system, and one whose realization is somewhat remote, even though it sounds modest. Instead, ‘higher’ aims are the fashion, aims which are typically romantic and indeed nonsensical, such as ‘the full development of the personality’.” 

All of this supports the notion (which was propounded by Plato and criticized in Vol. 1 of Open Society) that individualism virtually amounts to selfishness. But this confuses the main issue, namely “how to obtain a sane appreciation of one’s own importance in relation to other individuals?”

Popper suggests that the romantic notion of striving for a higher award to be given by posterity may be marginally better than the demand for immediate rewards.

“But it is not what we need. We need an ethics which defies success and reward. And such an ethics need not be invented. It is not new. It has been taught by Christianity, at least in its beginnings. It is, again, taught by the industrial as well as by the scientific co-operation of our own day. The romantic historicist morality of fame, fortunately, seems to be on the decline. The Unknown Soldier shows it. We are beginning to realize that sacrifice may mean just as much, or even more, when it is made anonymously. Our ethical education must follow suit. We must be taught to do our work; to make our sacrifice for the sake of this work; and not for praise or the avoidance of blame. We must find our justification in our work, in what we are doing ourselves, and not in a fictitious ‘meaning of history’ ”. [Open Society, II, pp. 277-278].

These thoughts occur in a chapter [the last, chapter 25] of Open Society titled “Has History any Meaning?” in which Popper criticises attempts to leap on the bandwagon of history, as many Marxist recruits of his generation (and generations before and since) did. 

“History has no meaning, I contend. But this contention does not imply that all we can do about it is to look aghast at the history of political power, or that we must look on it as a cruel joke. For we can interpret it, with an eye to those problems of power politics whose solution we choose to attempt in our time. We can interpret the history of power politics from the point of view of our fight for the open society, for a rule of reason, for justice, freedom, equality, and for the control of international crime. Although history has no ends, we can impose these ends of ours upon it; and although history has no meaning, we can give it meaning.” [Open Society, II, p. 278].

2. State Control and Indoctrination

Popper’s critique of Plato in Vol. 1 of Open Society challenges the Platonic ideal of the stable state with its rigid class divisions. Plato’s system of education comes under attack because it is designed as an instrument to maintain class rule and to ensure that the mass of people depend totally on leadership from the rulers.

Popper quotes Plato as follows:

“The greatest [political] principle of all  . . .  is that nobody, whether male or female, should ever be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully . . . There is no law, nor will there ever be one, which is superior to this, or better and more effective in ensuring salvation and victory in war. And in times of peace, and from the earliest childhood on should it be fostered — this habit of ruling others, and of being ruled by others. And every trace of anarchy should be utterly eradicated from all the life of all the men, and even of the wild beasts which are subject to men”.. [Open Society, Vol. 1, p.103].

So the supreme function of the system of education is to stabilize the state, and especially the class system, by preparing the rulers to rule and the masses to be ruled without question. An especially elaborate preparation is required for those at the apex of the pyramid, the philosopher kings.

“Thus Plato’s philosophical education has a definite political function. It puts a mark on the rulers, and it establishes a barrier between the rulers and the ruled. (This has remained a major function of ‘higher’ education down to our own time.) Platonic wisdom is acquired largely for the sake of establishing a permanent political class rule. It can be described as political ‘medicine’ giving mystic powers to its possessors, the medicine-men”. (Open Society, Vol. 1, p. 148).

“A certain amount of state control in education, for instance, is necessary, if the young are to be protected from a neglect which would make them unable to defend their freedom, and the state should see that all educational facilities are available to everybody. But too much state control in educational matters is a fatal danger to freedom, since it must lead to indoctrination”. (Open Society, Vol. 1, p. 111).

This view follows from Popper’s theory of the protective state whose primary function is to protect individuals from coercion by other people. The state stands ready to limit the freedom of those who attempt to impose upon others, making use of superior power in one or other of its various forms — physical, economic, political.

Popper is highly critical of the idea that the State should have complete authority and control over education, in addition to making sure that all people have access to education.

“State authority in these matters (education) is liable to achieve, in fact, the exact opposite of Socrates’ aim (intellectual modesty and the self-critical attitude). It is liable to produce dogmatic self-satisfaction and massive intellectual complacency, instead of critical dissatisfaction and eagerness for improvement”. (Open Society, Vol. 1, p. 130).

Popper refers to Crossman’s endorsement of the Platonic criticism of the laissez faire principle in education, and Crossman’s belief that education should be the major responsibility of the state, entrusted “only to the man of proven probity”. (Open Society, Vol. 1, p. 130).

Popper proceeds:

“…we have here an instance of the deeply-rooted prejudice that the only alternative to laissez faire is full state responsibility. I certainly believe that it is the responsibility of the state to see that its citizens are given an education enabling them to participate in the life of the community, and to make use of any opportunity to develop their special interests and gifts; and the state should also see .  . . that the lack of ‘the individual’s capacity to pay’ should not debar him from higher studies. This, I believe, belongs to the state’s protective functions. To say, however, that ‘the future of the state depends on the younger generation, and that it is therefore madness to allow the minds of children to be moulded by individual taste’, appears to me to open the door wide to totalitarianism”. (Open Society, Vol. 1, p.131).

Popper goes on to examine some of the objectives and principles of the Platonic education system. He notes some of the rather odd limitations that are placed upon students before they are allowed to tackle some of the higher philosophical studies.

The greatest problem of all arises from the difficulty of selection and here the liberal function of education, especially that of promoting creative criticism, is sacrificed to the political function.

“…Plato utterly corrupted and confused the theory and practice of education by linking it up with his theory of leadership. The damage done is, if possible, even greater than that inflicted upon ethics by the identification of collectivism with altruism, and upon political theory by the introduction of the principle of sovereignty. Plato’s assumption that it should be the task of education (or, more precisely, of the educational institutions) to select the future leaders, and to train them for leadership, is still largely taken for granted. By burdening these institutions with a task which must go beyond the scope of any institution, Plato is partly responsible for their deplorable state”. (Open Society, Vol. 1, p. 127).

“In fact, we are faced here with a fundamental difficulty for the leader principle. The very idea of selecting or educating future leaders is self-contradictory.  . . .  (because) the secret of intellectual excellence is the spirit of criticism; it is intellectual independence. . . . Institutions for the selection of the outstanding can

hardly be devised. . . . (Institutional selection) . . .  will always tend to eliminate initiative and originality, and, more generally, qualities which are unusual or unexpected. . . . This (use of education as a selection mechanism) transforms our educational system into a race-course, and turns the course of studies into a hurdle-race. Instead of encouraging the student to devote himself to his studies for the sake of studying, instead of encouraging in him a real love for his subject and for inquiry, he is encouraged to study for the sake of his personal career. . . . In other words, even in the field of science, our methods of selection are based upon an appeal to personal ambition of a somewhat crude form. (It is a natural reaction to this appeal if the eager student is looked upon with suspicion by his colleagues)”. (Open Society, Vol. 1, pp. 134-35).

Popper comments that many enthusiastic educationists have overlooked that Platonic education is a class privilege. They credit Plato with the idea that education should not be limited to those who can pay for it.

“…The evil is the class prerogative as such. It is comparatively unimportant whether this prerogative is based upon the possession of money or upon any other criterion by which membership of the ruling class is determined”. (Open Society, Vol. 1, p. 227, note 33).

In the light of Plato’s anti-Athenian and anti-literary tendencies expressed in Republic it is hard to understand why so many educationalists enthuse about his educational theories. The Tenth Book of the Republic attacks all poets and writers of tragedy, and especially Homer who is put beneath the level of a good technician or mechanic. Popper suggests that the admiring educationalists may not understand what Plato is saying or they may be simply flattered by Plato’s emphasis on the political power of education. (Open Society, Vol. 1, p.228, note 39).

Further comments on Plato’s advocacy of rigid censorship aimed at ruling class discipline:

“Those who are to be the guardians of our city ought to consider it the most pernicious crime to quarrel easily with one another” [so much for the Pre-Socratic tradition of critical thinking and internal debate within schools of thought]. (Open Society, Vol. 1, p. 229, note 40).

3. Science Teaching and Critical Thinking

“And in our day no man should be considered educated if he does not take an interest in science. The usual defence that an interest in electricity or stratigraphy need not be more enlightening than an interest in human affairs only betrays a complete lack of understanding of human affairs. For science is not merely a collection of facts about electricity, etc.; it is one of the most important spiritual movements of our day. Anybody who does not attempt to acquire an understanding of this movement cuts himself off from the most remarkable development in the history of human affairs.”(The Open Society, Vol. 2, p. 283, note 6).

In Volume II of Open Society Popper objects to Aristotle’s theory of a liberal education which (writing in the 1940s) Popper considered still held sway in schools of the arts and humanities:

“ . . . the idea, unfortunately not yet obsolete, of a gentleman’s education, as opposed to the education of a slave, serf, servant or professional man”. [Open Society, Vol. 2, p.4].

Popper claims that for Aristotle “every form of professionalisation means a loss of caste” and a feudal gentleman may take an interest in things, and even acquire some skill, but only to a certain degree, otherwise he may become too proficient (like a professional) and lose caste.

In note 6 to chapter 11 (pp. 283-284, note 6) of Vol. 2 Open Society Popper says:  

“I admit that there is a serious problem of a professional education, that of narrow-mindedness. But I do not believe that a ‘literary’ education is the remedy; for it may create its own peculiar form of narrow-mindedness, its peculiar snobbery.  . . .  Our so-called Arts Faculties, based upon the theory that by means of a literary and historical education they introduce the student into the spiritual life of man, have therefore become obsolete in their present form. There can be no history of man which excludes a history of his intellectual struggles and achievements; and there can be no history of ideas which excludes the history of scientific ideas. But literary education has an even more serious aspect. Not only does it fail to educate the student, who is often to become a teacher, to an understanding of the greatest spiritual movement of his own day, but it also often fails to educate him in intellectual honesty. Only if the student experiences how easy it is to err, and how hard it is to make even a small advance in the field of knowledge, only then can he obtain a feeling for the standards of intellectual honesty, a respect for truth, and a disregard for authority and bumptiousness. But nothing is more necessary today than he spread of these modest intellectual virtues. ‘The mental power’, T. H. Huxley wrote in A Liberal Education, ‘which will be of most importance in your  . . .  life will be the power of seeing things as they are without regard to authority.  . . .  But at school and at college, you shall know of no source of truth but authority.’ I admit that, unfortunately, this is true also of many courses in science, which by some teachers is still treated as if it was a ‘body of knowledge’, as the ancient phrase goes. But this idea will one day, I hope, disappear; for science can be taught as a fascinating part of human history — as a quickly developing growth of bold hypotheses, controlled by experiment and by criticism. Taught in this way, as a part of the history of  ‘natural philosophy’, and of the history of problems and of ideas, it could become the basis of a new liberal University education; of one whose aim, where it cannot produce experts, will be to produce at least men who can distinguish between a charlatan and an expert. This modest and liberal aim will be far beyond anything that our Arts faculties nowadays achieve”.

On pp. 34-35 of Vol. 2 of Open Society, Popper quotes Frederick William III on liberal education:

“Abstract sciences  . . .  that touch only the academic world, and serve only to enlighten this group, are of course without value to the welfare of the State; it would be foolish to restrict them entirely, but it is healthy to keep them within proper limits.”

Compare this with modern demands for ‘relevance’ in education at the expense of intellectual excellence and mastery of basic skills.

Rafe Champion, July 1987


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