Less austerity, more philosophy

Source: Purdue.edu

When deprived of funding educational systems respond by centralization and efficiency. These concepts make sense when mass-manufacturing ketchup, but undermine curiosity, creativity, and wisdom when applied to education.

The logic of efficiency demands that more be done with less. Inevitably, this translates to teachers having more students with the same time available to teach them. In consequence, teachers have less time to establish a rapport with their students and must learn to treat them like they are all the same tomato being squished into the same bottle. Over-standardization and the installation of often-inflexible rules, at all levels, is the outcome. Ministers, administrators, and teachers must employ ever more efficient methods to assess outcomes and demonstrate progress. In Cegep, where learning the names of 120 students is already challenging, the human-ness of students recedes. In short: education – when funneled through the logic of efficiency – is at threat of becoming cold, impersonal, and soulless.

All is not lost, to be sure. Knowledge, as the saying goes, is generated. Vocabulary is improved, logic is strengthened, morals are considered, and skills are acquired. Society benefits from this. But at risk of being lost is a whole set of skills that are at the heart of learning, even if they are not easily quantifiable, or quantifiable at all.

Ignoring the triaging tactics that assessment and feedback demand of large classes, consider how efficiency and the overloading of classes alter the nature of conversation. There is the risk of there being no conversation, for starters. In a classroom of 40 – 42 students – typical of Cegep – there may be too many personalities, too much social pressure, and too many people for an open and inclusive conversation to develop. This can be a curse for the social sciences and humanities, in particular. What should be a dialogue, dialectic, conversation, etc. may become an extended monologue. Some larger classes can develop great discussions, to be sure, and some teachers are particularly effective in such settings. Quite often, though, the same 3 or 4 personalities dominate, while most others remain silent, often in opposition to the more confident personalities. Knowing that they will not be called upon, many students recede into their cell-phones or internal preoccupations where they have more skin in the game, so to speak. Whatever they miss in class they will make up for with cramming later. The more students that teachers have to instruct, the greater the distance between them and their students, and the more the educational system becomes less responsive to students’ thought processes.

I was recently speaking with a student about a project that she was developing on whether violent imagery perpetuates violent behaviour. The student is smart, patient, and creative, and she was applying a unique and thoughtful analysis to a question that is wrought with clichés and oversimplifications. While speaking with her she divulged that she believes in the theory that aliens have built the pyramids. I prompted her by suggesting that the type of experts she has used as sources for her class project are similar to the experts that, by consensus, reject the idea that aliens built the pyramids. ‘Yeah, well we all know about “experts”,’ was the reply.

My mind began to race as the words fell from her mouth. Here we have one of the more able students in the class – a 90s student who can deliver a 15 page, university-level, APA formatted analysis – who by her own words does not trust the sources that she is using to deliver her work, but knows that they are required in order to gain good grades. Administrators can check all of the boxes for her in terms of “meeting competencies”, “obtaining objectives”, “demonstrating knowledge”, etc. without knowing that she doesn’t believe in any of it and is probably more concerned about the dangers of chemtrails (not unlikely given the way ideas overlap).

It occurred to me that this could be an excellent learning opportunity. By what criteria can we establish truth about the building of the pyramids? If the criteria are defined and accepted, does one or the other theory better survive the scrutiny demanded by the criteria? This situation could have been developed into an engaging exercise in the philosophy of science, and might have reframed the way that she approaches important questions throughout her life. As I thought all of this I realized that her time was up and that the next student was at the door, waiting for her 10 minutes of conversation time. We had to leave it there. Next.

Geoffrey Pearce – Montreal, Qc

2 thoughts on “Less austerity, more philosophy

  1. ” There is the risk of there being no conversation, for starters. In a classroom of 40 – 42 students – typical of Cegep – there may be too many personalities, too much social pressure, and too many people for an open and inclusive conversation to develop. This can be a curse for the social sciences and humanities, in particular. ”

    Ouch. Some scholarly pursuits are injured less than others when conversation is less than open and inclusive? Math? probability? physics?


    1. That is a fair critique. I was thinking that in the humanities and social sciences discussion of values and ethics is often a major focus, and that addressing all of the (often contradictory) perspectives held by students in large classes is impossible. The differences I experienced in teaching about animal rights in a class of 40 vs. a class of 10 was quite striking, for example. Most everyone sat in silent disagreement with the discussion I tried to start in the class of 40, whereas in the class of 10 most were vocal in their disagreement, but at least were able to identify the reasons for their disagreement and acknowledge that their views could be seen as highly speciesest. By contrast, there is often little room for debate about the reality of physical processes discussed in the physical sciences, although this obviously changes once you get to a high level and uncertainty reigns, and this does not mean that students will have fewer questions. All of this said, I think that you are correct and that having smaller classes is desirable in any discipline, not only in terms of being able to establish a rapport with students and the openness and inclusiveness that follows, but in terms of the type of assignments that can be given and the volume of grading that results.


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