Paideia Essay

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The origin of the term pedagogy is the ancient Greek word paideia. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as meaning “the sum of physical and intellectual achievement to which an individual or (collectively) a society can aspire; a society’s culture.” Paideia in the fifth century BCE was synonymous with the term childrearing. In the fourth century BCE, it came to mean education as reflecting the ways of a culture.

The idea that education reflects the ways of a culture—in other words, its values and beliefs—is a concept that is fundamental to the study of the social foundations of education. Essentially, the field is concerned with how schools are connected to and part of the larger culture. In doing so, it assumes a deeply ecological argument, one that suggests that what takes place in schools is not isolated from the culture, but very much dependent upon the forces that are at work in the society. Thus, if there is racial discrimination in the culture, it is logical to assume that there will be discrimination in the content of the published curriculum in the schools, in the content of classroom instruction, and as part of the informal curriculum that is part of the educational system. Likewise, if there is gender discrimination at work in the larger society, then the unequal treatment of men and women in school settings will likewise be evident in the content of school curricula and activities.

The concept of paideia provides an important organizing point for asking key questions about education. For example: What is the nature of privilege in schools and other educational settings? Who is privileged? Why? How is privilege perpetutated? What is the relationship of privilege to larger constructions of power and authority in the culture?

The term paideia is significantly different in its meaning from the Latin term educere, the root of the modern term education. The Latin verb educere literally means to “to lead out from” or “to lead forth” (ex + ducere). This word suggests the idea of children who are taught, or who have ideas drawn out from them through the instruction provided by a tutor.

Paideia, as a term, has probably not been used more because of its associations with the more archaic term of pedagogy, as well as the fact that its use points to the social and cultural aspects of schooling, a topic which may often be avoided for political purposes.


  1. Curren, R. R. (1996). Paideia. In Philosophy of education: An encyclopedia. New York: Garland.
  2. Jaeger, W. W. (1943). Paideia: The ideals of Greek culture (G. Highet, Trans.). New York: Oxford University Press.

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