Philosophical musings, if you will

Philosophy of Education, Journal Entry #1
In the last few weeks, we’ve been talking a lot John Dewey, and more generally, about what we understand education to be, namely, a transmission of something from one person or group to another. We haven’t yet really tackled the question of what the something is – we’ve speculated that it may be moral or social values, which certainly seems to be the crux of Dewey’s argument, or that it may be intellectual habits of mind, which we might argue is the position of the Quebec government, as manifested in its competency-based program approach to education. Finally, that something might simply be knowledge itself.

Personally, I think the something we transmit must be rooted in the aforementioned habits of mind. As an English teacher, I know that my students do not come to me for strict knowledge of English literature, or even essay-writing skills. With rare exception, my students are not going on to study Literature at university, nor are they planning to become professional readers or writers. What I can offer them, however, is practice – the practical application of honed reading, writing and thinking skills. Abraham Maslow once said “when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail.” I believe that especially at the college level, our job as teachers is to help our students build up their toolboxes, so they can learn to see problems from different perspectives, and become better-equipped to solve those problems.
Having said that, I also believe that we cannot dismiss either the idea that we transmit knowledge or that we transmit values. If we consider Bloom, whose taxonomy has always struck me as the pedagogical reflection of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we might concede that higher education must be supported by a strong base of knowledge. We cannot, for instance, expect our students to approach a text as critical thinkers if they do not possess certain fundamental skills, namely, reading and vocabulary. Similarly, we cannot expect students to develop habits of mind particular to a discipline without the basic knowledge at the heart of that discipline. At the same time, if we are transmitting habits of mind to our students, I believe we are inevitably transmitting our values as well. After all, if nothing else we’re demonstrating that we value education and intellectual habits of mind.
What we haven’t really explored so far is why we value education as much as we do. I assume that we all, especially as teachers, consider education as not only valuable, but perhaps essential, and not just because the job market demands accredited qualifications. For Dewey, the inherent value in education is the preservation of the social group, the continuation of the characteristic life of the society. He seems to think that our schools should be purified microsocieties, with the express intent of molding future generations in our image, in order to perpetuate democracy. Here and now, is this the value we place upon education? As a society, we certainly appear to value education – after all, our schools are publicly-funded, with tuition-free access to all levels of education prior to university. University tuition, as the on-going freeze controversy reminds us, is very low, and the government provides loans and bursaries to those students who can demonstrate need (the government definition of ‘need’ is another topic altogether). Just this morning, Gazette columnist Janet Bagnall wrote about Canadian immigration policy, which stipulates that immigrants must bring to this country either a university degree or “sophisticated” skills. Bagnall’s point is that despite these requirements, most immigrants are not offered jobs or salaries commensurate with their qualifications, and end up living in poverty, with jobs that require very little in the way of education or “sophisticated” skill. One of my former language students was the director of human resources for a large, up-scale hotel in downtown Montreal; he told me that his staff included people from around the world, most of whom spoke three or more languages, and who held degrees from their respective countries, in a wide range of fields. In the promised land that is Canada, these people are scrubbing other people’s toilets and carrying other people’s suitcases.
If, as a society, we are not prepared to fund higher education, as the tuition debate suggests, nor are we prepared to reward education and skill, as our immigrant population testifies, then can we say that we truly value education? Presumably, we believe that a better-educated populace means a better, more prosperous society; but are we practicing what we preach?

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