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Notes towards a philosophy of education

Irving Hexham

© 2003


Education is the foundation upon which society is built. For a society to be just and democratic education must be equally available to all citizens and educational advancement must be based on merit. The task of education begins with parents who delegate it to schoolteachers.

Educational theory

My basic view of education is derived from the reflections of Aurelius Augustine (354-430 CE) that bring together ideas found in both Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Plato (428-347 BC). These ideas are found primarily in The Teacher and Christian Instruction .

Written in the Fall of 386 CE Augustine debates the significance of words and our ability to understand then in his Platonic style dialogue The Teacher . At the conclusion of his discourse on epistemology Augustine observes “What foolish curiosity could ever prompt a man to send his child to school in order to have him learn what the teacher thinks? But when teachers have made use of words to explain all those branches of learning which they profess to be teaching. Including those dealing with virtue and wisdom, then those who are known as pupils reflect within themselves whether what has been said is true. Contemplating, that is, that inner truth according to their capacity. It is then, therefore that they learn …” with this view his son Adeodatus agrees adding “words merely stimulate a man to learn …” (Augustine. 1967:59-60).

Although the dialogue is complex what I take from it reflects my experience. A teacher stimulates thought through presenting evidence and arguments that cause the student to attain an understanding that comes from within their own thought processes. Augustine continued this discussion of learning in Christian Instruction written around 326 CE. Here, in Book Two, chapters 17 and 18, Augustine reflects on “the superstitions of the pagans” and the significance of the nine Muses. Here he lays down the principle that “We should not ignore literature because Mercury is reputed to be its presiding deity … On the contrary, every good and true Christian should understand that wherever he discovers truth it is the Lord's” (Augustine 1945:86-87)

Like Augustine, I believe, all knowledge is valuable as knowledge because ultimately, and one ought not say this in a secular university, it reflects the glory of God. Therefore, like Augustine, I find the world full of wonder and excitement and recognize that all areas of life and accumulated knowledge can stimulate us to learn because, another politically incorrect view, we aspire to know the truth even though ultimate truth is always beyond our reach.

With this background it is understandable that my basic philosophy of higher education is rooted in the Christian humanism of John Henry Newman and his classic work On the Scope and Nature of University Education better known as The Idea of a University (1852). Here Newman outlines the main purpose of university education as the preservation of liberal values in a humane society based on the transmission of culture and the acquisition of knowledge within the framework of the shaping of character in preparation for life in a civil society.

This ideal is actually remarkably similar to that of the research university based on the von Humboldt model that found expression in the University of Berlin in 1810 that recognizes the importance of education in the venacular as pioneered by the Pietist tradition at the University of Halle in the seventeenth century. Consequently, it is superficially similar to the type of education found in many American Liberal Arts Colleges. Like the American liberal arts tradition Newman's model seeks to form habits of study and learning. Unlike the American model Newman rejects the view that each individual needs to acquire a smattering of every major academic discipline.

Rather he endorses the view that “A thorough knowledge of one science and a superficial acquaintance with many are not the same thing … Recreations are not education.” Hence I take seriously his warning “Do not say the people must be educated, when after all you only mean amused …” (Newman 1852, 1961:121).

After Newman I believe Jacques Barzun's book The American University (1968) offers the best analysis of what I see as the contemporary crisis in university education. Frankly, I found both The Symons Report (1978) and the Smith Report (1991) superficial in comparison. Edwin G. West's Higher Education in Canada (1988) contains a lot of practical statistics and interestingly comes out against the idea of creating “centers of excellence” which he rightly observes rest on unproved ideas about “large economies of scale” that are “unproven:” Further, there is no evidence that they “foster any greater degree of intellectual development than institutions without such resources” (West 1988:112).

On the topic of educational fads the current emphasis by SSHRC and Canadian universities on interdisciplinary collaborative research is also highly questionable particularly when it is conceived simply to obtain large external funds. As Wilfried Decoo points out in Crisis on Campus (2002) there is no evidence that such projects produce better results than individual researchers and considerable evidence that they actually encourage large-scale academic fraud (Decoo 2002:26-34).

Other, recent works analyzing Canadian education like Peter Emberley and Waller R. Newell's Bankrupt Education (1994), which makes some good points, and Tom Pocklington and Allan Tupper's No Place to Learn (2002), which is remarkably crude, do not begin to approach the depth of vision and practical outlook of either Barzun or Newman.

John W. Creswell, et al., The Academic Chairperson's Handbook (1990) contains some common sense managerial principles but is generally depressing in its lack of a clear educational vision. On the other hand James V. Schall's Another Sort of Learning (1988) contains some delightful essays.

The Carnegie Commission Report The University as an Organization edited by James A. Perkins (1972) provides a useful for overview and history of the development of university education in a comparative perspective. A similar report on the role of the humanites is the Calvin College Curriculum Study Committee Report Christian Liberal Arts Education (1970), which despite its title covers a wide range of issues. Robert Paul Wolff's The Ideal of the University (1969) presents similar ideas in a somewhat lighter tone.

John Francis Leddy presents a Canadian perspective on these issues in his The Humanities in Modern Education (1965). To gain a better insight into Canadian higher education I also read Robin S. Harris A History of Higher Education in Canada (1976) and more recently Michael Horn's Academic Freedom in Canada , (1999).

Practically, Robert F. Mager's Preparing Instructional Objectives (1962) has greatly influenced my thinking on teaching methods. So too did my work with the British Open University in its early years where considerable attention was paid to creating a coherent educational model that involved faculty in real decision making.

Finally, Peter F. Drucker's various forays into educational theory have always interested me. In general I agree with Drucker's analysis, who is consciously aware of Augustine's influence on his ideas, and belief that education ought to enable students to pursue those things that they are interested in and have a talent for. His ideas on financing higher education I also find attractive and practical (1968:263-380, 1993:181-218)

Academic fraud and the peer review process

The issue of academic fraud is one that has interested me for over ten years because it seems to me this is the Achilles Heel of modern education which if not addressed in the near future will destroy the credibility of universities. The fact that Microsoft maintain a one strike and out for life policy in terms of their certification exams seems highly significant and underscores the need for academic reflection in this area.

Recently John McCabe has produced startling results showing widespread fraud among undergraduates in both Canada and the United States with one student in three admitting to cheating ( National Post 30 August 2003). Unfortunately, he studiously avoids studying academic fraud by faculty members (private correspondence). Decoo, however, sites figures showing that graduate students claim to observe between 6-9% of faculty involved in fraudulent activities while faculty reported between 15-43% observing fraud by other faculty members (Decoo 2002:15). My own observations in Religious Studies suggests fraud in the sense of blatant plagiarism runs around 12-25%. Yet this is not something universities seem to take seriously.

Where academic fraud affects everyone is in the effect it has on the peer review process. For good reason the Swedish Government recently abandoned peer review as a means of allocating funds (BBC TV report early September 2003 and Scifraud 4 April 1999). If only 10% of faculty members are blatant plagiarists how can peer review be said to work when their obvious fraud is not picked up by academic reviewers?

As far as I can see the greatest danger in academic fraud by faculty is in the potential for lawsuits against university administrations by former graduate students who suffered as a result of working with someone who was clearly a fraud. To-date I know of only case of this nature where a student won damages from a professor at the University of Ottawa ( New York Times 24/9/1997) and none against a university administration for employing such a professor. On the other hand the Royal Military College in Kingston is suing a student to return $64,000 in scholarships after he was expelled for plagiarism ( Kingston Whig-Standard 2003).

Given these cases it is only a matter of time before plagiarism lawsuits take off and begin to have the same impact and rapid growth as charges of sexual misconduct by Roman Catholic priests. If this sounds unlikely consider the fact that an investor is suing a stock anylist in Britain for twenty-seven million pounds because of alleged plagiarism ( The Times of London online 7/8/2002) and the increased interest in the press and by the public in plagiarism. For example in 1992 there were 65 articles about plagiarism in the Canadian press. In 2002 the number had jumped to 268 with increasing calls for faculty found guilty of plagiarism to be punished (e.g. Ottawa Citizen 9 April 2002, 16 September 2003).

Finally, it needs to be noted that the American Historical Association has tightened its policies on plagiarism and other forms of misconduct by faculty ( The Associated Press 1 June 2003). So too has the editor of the MLA Style Manual who now includes “continuous paraphrasing” in his definition of plagiarism (Gibaldi 1999:151-152).

Practical views

First, I believe that higher education ought to be open to all and seen as an investment by the State in its future. At present all students pay for their education twice. First in terms of university fees, second in the taxes they pay to the State as a result of their higher earning powers. Further, the education of students is also paid for by the taxes of their parents and grandparents. So university fees are daylight robbery.

Second, admission caps are detrimental to true learning. All universities ought to maintain an open admission policy. Therefore, drop out rates ought not to be held against a professor, department or university. Everyone who wants to take a course ought to be allowed into that course subject only to restrictions of space. Then students ought to be allowed, even encouraged, to decide that the course is not for them and drop out without penalty.

Third, professors ought not to be judged on the basis of unverified universal student assessments. All student evaluations ought to be correlated against the actual, not hoped for, grade that a student receives in a course. Then only the comments of top students ought to be taken into account.

Fourth, at the undergraduate level the current curriculum based on continuous assessment and a system of what are often punitive grades retards learning. Grades say far more about the institution than the student. In my experience some graduate students with low undergraduate GPA's are the best long term academics while “brilliant” students with very high GPA's go nowhere in terms of sustaining an academic career. For this reason I believe a good university ought to interview all applicants for graduate school regardless of GPA and accept them on the basis of their interview results not formal GPA marks.

Fifth, all lectures ought to be based on an audit system open to all and voluntary. Students ought to take courses them because they want to take them and for no other reason. Assessment ought to be based on course work and exams but only to the extent that the student decides to obtain a qualification in a given area.

Sixth, the curriculum really ought to be far more structured for any given field. Professors ought to be able to assume that every student knows what is meant by common terms like the Enlightenment and Liberalism things they certainly do not know today. But, this means reforming the school system.

Teaching strategy

Throughout my teaching I work on the principle that it is the student who learns. Therefore, it is my task as a teacher to stimulate learning. This means creating an interest in a subject so that the students want to discover more and takes it upon themselves to explore a field.

At the introductory level my main aim is to create an interest in the study of religion. To do this I believe it is necessary to encourage students to overcome their fear of examinations and related course work so that they see these things as part of their own learning process and not primarily a judgment on their abilities. In other words it is necessary to help students build confidence in their own abilities.

At higher undergraduate levels my aim is to continue to stimulate students to think for themselves and make a subject their own. Again my main goal is to encourage students to have confidence in their own abilities and to respect their own judgments. Here, however, it is necessary to impart both information and begin encouraging the acquisition of specific skills in research and writing.

At the graduate level my aim is to enable the student to become scholars in their own right. This means not rewriting their papers and making endless minor corrections. Rather the role of the supervisor is to give encouragement and general criticisms. The role of the student is to do the work. Far too many “good” masters and even Ph.D. students falter as soon as they are really on their own as junior faculty. Graduate students must be prepared for the real world. This means they should also do some teaching, marking, advising, run seminars etc.

It is also the responsibility of a supervisor to ensure that their graduate students find jobs. This is particularly true at the Ph.D. level. The choice of external examiners, accompany graduate students to real academic conferences, not graduate student conferences, where they can be introduced to significant people in the field are all part of the supervisor, as is looking out for job opportunities and writing good references.

Graduate students are not friends. An appropriate distance is needed particularly during the early stages. But, they may become friends and ought to become good colleagues.

More to come …


Associated Press

Saint Augustine Christian Instruction , translated by John J. Gavigan Washington, Catholic University of America Press, 1945, pp. 86-87

Saint Augustine The Teacher , translated by Robert P. Russell, Washington, Catholic University of America Press, 1967

Jacques Barzun, The American University , Harper & Row, New York , 1968

Calvin College Curriculum Study Committee, Christian Liberal Arts Education, Grand Rapids , Eerdmans, 1970

John W. Creswell, et al., The Academic Chairperson's Handbook , University of Nebrask Press , Lincoln , 1990

Wilfried Decoo, Crisis on Campus , MIT Press, Cambridge , MA , 2002

Peter F. Drucker, The Age of Discontinuity Harper & Row, New York , 1968, and The Post-Capitalist Society , Harper Collins, New York 1993

Peter Emberley and Waller R. Newell, Bankrupt Education , University of Toronto Press, Toronto , 1994

Joseph Gibaldi, MLA Style Manual, Modern Languages Association of America , New York , 1998

Robin S. Harris A History of Higher Education in Canada , University of Toronto Press, Toronto ,1976

Michael Horn, Academic Freedom in Canada , Toronto University Press, Toronto , 1999

Sheila Kieran, ed., The Symons Report, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto ,1978

Kingston Whig-Standard

John Francis Leddy, The Humanities in Modern Education , W. J. Gale, Toronto , 1965

Robert F. Mager, Preparing Educational Objectives , Feron-Pitman, Belmont , CA , 1975

National Post

New York Times

John Henry Newman, On the Scope and Nature of University Education J.M. Dent, London , 1961, first published 1852

James A. Prekins, ed., The University as an Organization , Berkeley , The Carnegie Foundation, 1973

Tom Pocklington and Allan Tupper, No Place to Learn , UBC Press, Vancouver , 2002

James V. Schall's Another Sort of Learning , Ignatius Press, San Francisco ,1988

Stuart L. Smith, Report: Commission of Inquiry on Canadian University Education, Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada , Ottawa , 1991

Times of London online

Edwin G. West, Higher Education in Canada , The Fraser Institute, Vancovuer, 1988

Robert Paul Wolff, The Ideal of the University , Beacon Press, Boston ,1969