Internationalization and Democracy: A Critique of Canadian Higher Education in Light of John Dewey's Philosophy.

Author:Heringer, Rebeca


Although travelling abroad to pursue a degree is not a new phenomenon, the modern process of internationalization of higher education has been rather distinguishable due to its pace and range. Canada, for instance, has been one of the most popular destinations among international students in the 21st century (Andrade, 2006; Wadhwa, 2016). In 2017, the country received 494,525 international students, coming from more than 180 different nations (Canadian Bureau for International Education, 2018). Although there might be differences among terms, in this study the concept of higher education will be used interchangeably with post-secondary to refer to education in universities. Additionally, international student is defined as individuals who left their home countries to study at a university abroad, either for the whole degree or just part of it, and, for the purposes of this research, professors were to focus only on graduates.

Many can be the benefits of such process, especially for universities and international students themselves. Besides being a fundamental source of revenue for universities (as international students' tuition fees may sometimes be four times that of Canadians'), the Association of Canadian Deans of Education (ACDE, 2014) points that the internationalization of higher education can "create opportunities for collaborative knowledge production, exposure to different contexts and worldviews, more complex and nuanced analyses, and improved capacity to respond to change and diversity" (p. 5).

Nonetheless, the potential risks involved in this constantly-evolving process must also be taken into account. As stated on the Accord on the Internationalization of Education (ACDE, 2014), exploitative practices emerging from an unbalanced focus on profit maximization, systemic exclusion, and the consequent emergence of a neo-colonization of epistemologies are some of the potential threats involved in the internationalization of higher education. Additionally, when we analyze the fundaments of democratic education, its purposes, and ideal modus operandi, as elaborated by both traditional and contemporary philosophy of education, many aspects of the process of internationalization are worthy of attention.

One of the most renowned exponents of philosophy of education of the 20th century, John Dewey, has consistently warned about the dangers of formal education, arguing that not every experience is genuinely educative. For him, education is not merely formation or storage of knowledge, and is only democratic to the degree that it promotes an active interaction of human beings, one in which everyone participates with shared purposes. An education shaped by a one-sided intellectuality, one that accepts standards as final and seeks to fit students to it, then, is not truly educative.

On a similar vein, Derrida (1998, 2000; Fagan, 2013) and Ruitenberg (2011a, 2011b, 2016), based on the hospitality metaphor, argue that the mere presence of the other is not enough to ensure that they feel welcome. True hospitality, for those authors, is unconditional and entails more than tolerance of diversity: it requires the complete decentralization of the host (i.e. the teacher) while allowing the guest (i.e. student) to make changes in the environment.

Therefore, in the midst of a process that may involve so much money and time, as is the case of modern internationalization of higher education, and especially in a country that takes so much pride in their multiculturalism policies, such as Canada, it is crucial that students are not treated as mere commodities, but receive the education that has been widely advertised: one shaped by well-informed goals and conducted in such a way that value international knowledge. Thus, based on some of Dewey's seminal ideas, this paper is a return to the roots of a philosophy of education while also seeking to make a dialogue with contemporary philosophers of education who may also contribute to modern Canadian higher education in the pursuit of a democratic internationalized education which is meaningful for all those involved.

Methodology and Limitations

Ten professors of six different faculties of a mid-sized Canadian university were recruited for a qualitative research. A semi-structured interview was conducted through Skype with each participant with the purpose of comprehending how they perceive their graduate international students, internationalization, and the impact of this process to their practices. While there may be a plethora of studies which seek to analyze how international students themselves experience their education, the purpose of this phenomenological research was to understand the essence of internationalization "from the vantage point of a pure or transcendental ego" (Moustakas, 1994, p. 33) of professors, whose voices have been rather absent from the literature despite being so fundamental to this process.

Informed consent was obtained from all participants through their digital or printed signature. At the time of the interview, professors had between 13 and 34 years of experience in that institution. Each interview was transcribed verbatim and analyzed by the researcher following Moustakas' (1994) phenomenological approach. In order to protect participants' privacy, pseudonyms have been attributed to each of them, and any information that could reveal their identities (such as one's faculty) was omitted and replaced by something in brackets so as to maintain the sentence's meaning.

I recognize that this research is limited in many ways. First of all, I am aware that most of Dewey's writings which I discuss here were not originally focused on the higher education level. Nonetheless, I believe his arguments evidence clear parallels and transferrable ideas to the present context, which could be greatly valuable in the pursuit of democratic education.

I also recognize that my participant population is quite disproportional in terms of faculty, having 8 from sciences and 2 from social sciences. Although the invitations to potential participants were sent to a broad range of faculties and to more than a hundred professors, it was only the 10 recruited participants who responded willing to participate. However, this low rate of response not only should alert the reader of the way in which findings may have been potentially skewed, but also leads one to wonder why it was so. Was it because the interview would be conducted online, which may be uncomfortable from some people? Was it due to a lack of interest in the topic? Although I can only conjecture reasons for this low rate of response, I acknowledge that different participants, whether from other faculties or universities, could have different views on the issue. The findings, therefore, should not be generalized to the whole country, although I believe it conveys relevant aspects to be observed in every higher education institution that aims at internationalization.

Findings and Discussion

This article offers a critique to the internationalization of higher education in Canada in light of John Dewey's philosophy of education as well as contemporary scholarly work that greatly speaks to the issues which Dewey pointed long ago. Professors were originally asked about their perception of their graduate international students and internationalization, and the impact of this process to their practices. I present and discuss now the most relevant data generated from the interviews, together with a parallel of Dewey's take on each matter, which serves to illuminate aspects worthy of attention when aiming at a democratic internationalized higher education.

The Purposes and Dangers of Formal Education

After distinguishing between indirect, one that may happen simply by living with others, and formal education, that of schooling, Dewey (2011) acknowledges that, with the development of societies, formal teaching becomes more and more necessary. However, he alerts that the risk of dissociation with life also increases: "There is the standing danger that the material of formal instruction will be merely the subject matter of the schools, isolated from the subject matter of life experience" (p. 9). For Dewey, education must be connected to life and work for human growth because it is "a freeing of individual capacity in a progressive growth directed to social aims" (p. 56). Hence, the student must be "the starting-point, the center, and the end" (Dewey, 1902, p. 13). Conversely, when I asked participants about the benefits of the process of internationalization for the university, there was an overall agreement that graduate international students mostly bring money and conduct lots of research in the name of the university.

Daniel: Well, the university stands to make a lot more money [laughs]. So monetary gains are probably one of the most, how can I say? It's the foremost thing in some of the administrators' mind, I would guess. It's because the fees charged by the university to international students is very very high as compared to national students.

Mary: Honestly, all I can say is without international students, at least in my department, there wouldn't be any graduate program [laughs]. So, [our university] does need international students.

Noah: So without those international students I don't know how we're gonna run our graduate program [laughs]. That's just, you know, the basic...

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