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Imitation and Education: A Philosophical Inquiry into Learning by Example

reviewed by Mathew N. Sanger - October 09, 2009

coverTitle: Imitation and Education: A Philosophical Inquiry into Learning by Example
Author(s): Bryan R. Warnick
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791474283, Pages: 167, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com

The potential significance of Bryan Warnick’s inquiry into imitation and education is pointed out in its opening pages:

Conservatives place role models as central features in character education programs. Liberals, in turn, view the absence of role models for minority students as a major justification for affirmative action initiatives. Christian children are urged to do what Jesus would do . . . Endless debate surrounds the status and value of celebrities and athletes as role models, while new teachers are urged to find and imitate experienced mentors . . . Learning technologies are designed to help students imitate experts within particular domains of scientific practice.  Clearly, the notions of modeling, imitation, and exemplarity are some of the central concepts in contemporary educational and social discourse. (p. 2)

In response, Warnick sets a goal of “creating a better understanding of human exemplarity that will be useful in educational theory, educational practice, and larger social policy,” claiming that, “Assumptions about the functioning of human exemplarity exist in many different areas of educational thought, and, to put it bluntly, many of these assumptions are either wrong or underdeveloped. This is something that must change” (p. 12).

To cut to the chase, Warnick’s historically rich philosophical inquiry quite successfully, and in an engaging manner, achieves his goal of identifying and probing a wide range of common, often unacknowledged assumptions about imitation and exemplarity that operate in societies past and present. Further, it does so in a way that arguably can productively inform theory, research, practice, and policy, and I don’t see how one can read the book and think about imitation, or any human action, the same way again. Below, I briefly describe the book’s geography, along with some commentary on its limitations.

The basis of its key limitations is acknowledged in the opening chapter, namely, that most of the questions he sets out to address are empirical in nature: How does one life influence another? How do people become examples? How do examples bring out imitation? These are questions directly addressed by empirical research, particularly in psychology. But Warnick exemplifies a tradition of valuable philosophical work in bringing to light and probing how we think about these questions, the assumptions we often bring to the table when we do, and some of the possible limitations of, and alternatives to, those assumptions. Thus, his philosophical work richly furnishes the mind for considering the subject matter at hand, and points out a number of dangerous coffee-table corners we might otherwise bang our shins on in doing so. Much of these furnishings are drawn from history—ancient and modern, philosophical, empirical/scientific, and literary--and Warnick’s deep and abiding respect for the history of human thought reminds me of the work of David Hansen.  

Given this, it should be of no surprise that he begins the second chapter of the book, “The Historical Tradition of Human Exemplarity,” with a consideration of Homer and the role of human exemplars in Western thought from classical times, through the middle ages and the enlightenment. At this point, readers of any philosophical inquiry into exemplarity, might reasonably expect Aristotle, and in particular his Nicomachean Ethics, to play a prominent role, to eventually be followed by an extensive analysis of Albert Bandura’s work on observational learning. But Warnick’s analysis of our ideas about imitation finds substance and inspiration that largely avoids rehearsal of much of the expected canon. So instead of Aristotle, William James serves as a primary source that is drawn upon to explain the relationship of thought, motivation, and action in imitative behavior; we learn about the work of Pyrrhonian Skeptics, which serve as a basis for understanding how we might evaluate normative models; and Edmund Erde’s work on models in medical education helps us understand the social nature of reasoning in our responses to exemplars. Thus, the inquiry is fresh, original, and creative in terms of the ideas drawn upon and how they are combined and applied.

The initial historical overview lays the groundwork for successive chapters that continue to draw upon a mix of empirical and philosophical works across the ages to not only probe assumptions often made about imitation, but to build a theory of imitative behavior. That theory is grounded in a narrative view of the self, according to which our narrative identity serves as a key mediator of all of the impulsive ideas we are exposed to in the behavior of others. Warnick claims a major determinant of imitative behavior is the congruence of inherently impulsive ideas suggested by modeled behavior with our sense of self.  

Systematically complexifying this tentative theory in order to address its limitations, Warnick proceeds with a rich exploration of the social nature of our sense of self and our interpretation of exemplars. In doing so, he elaborates a range of additional factors that can mediate imitation, such as community identity and affiliation with others, and how imitation in turn mediates those factors themselves.  

This social, community-focused analysis continues as the author addresses the role of reason, and the possible reasoned bases of our reliance on examples and imitative action, proposing not only a social, but a process-based model of imitation. In the advocated model, educators (writ large) would intentionally exemplify productive, creative, open processes—rather than attending to and reproducing particular actions and their results. This is suggested in order to avoid a range of practical dangers of rigid conformity, and to support creativity, a respect for individual and social difference, and to ensure human freedom.

The penultimate chapter continues to address the epistemological basis for our evaluations of exemplars, and it struck me as somewhat less satisfying than the others. However, this may be because this massive philosophical ground has been so extensively plowed (with ample fireworks), and because so little room is available to substantively address the many relative strengths and possible shortcomings of the view offered by Warnick. That view is a broadly coherentist and constructivist one that sees exemplars as deeply influential (and appropriate) sources of normative judgment for individuals and communities. He also views them as appropriate objects of critical evaluation based upon standards that cannot wholly escape the influence of the exemplars and the social and normative context of their evaluation. The circularity involved in this line of thought seems clear, but Warnick suggests it reflects the best we can reasonably do, given the human condition. Again, in Deweyan fashion, Warnick largely sidesteps many of the most basic and the intractable moral and epistemological debates such a position might engender, and focuses on understanding how it might be practically taken advantage of. Following that romp through the moral epistemology of imitation, the final chapter provides an exceptionally clear and concise recapitulation of the main threads of the book, pointing up and extending his case for their meaning and their practical significance.

Again, one limitation of this book is that this is a philosophical inquiry into largely empirical questions which psychologists in particular have produced a substantial research literature to help us answer.  That fact, and the often spare and selective attention to that research literature, makes one wonder which threads of this truly engaging and generative inquiry might be made irrelevant by the empirical research not addressed. Despite the grounds for such doubts, the inevitability that this book will enrich the way its readers think about, interpret, study, and engage in educational practice (or any social activity) make it very worth while. Arguably, we have another contender for the educators’ required reading list—particularly those interested in the significance of ideas in education, and the craft of educational philosophy, as Warnick’s work itself is an exemplar of how the systematic analysis of our ideas and practices, and the assumptions behind them, can serve as a basis for meaningful educational change.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 09, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15800, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 3:46:38 AM

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About the Author
  • Mathew Sanger
    Idaho State University
    E-mail Author
    MATHEW N. SANGER is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Foundations at Idaho State University. His scholarship primarily focuses on the moral nature of teaching and teacher education, while at times more broadly addressing moral and educational philosophy, teacher education, and research methodology. He holds graduate degrees in Educational Studies and in Philosophy, from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
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