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date: 20 October 2017

Authenticity in Education

Summary and Keywords

Authenticity is a concept with an impressive history in Western philosophy and a significant hold on the modern imagination. Inseparable from conceptions of truth and individual fulfillment, authenticity remains a powerful ideal, even as it eludes precise definition. Recently it has also become an organizing principle for many educational initiatives. Education, like authenticity, is opposed to dissimulation, ignorance, manipulation, and related states of misalignment between truth and experience. There is widespread enthusiasm for the promotion of authenticity across different types of education and in the personal identity of educators and students. Most of the scholarly literature pertaining to authenticity in education falls outside the scope of philosophical inquiry. But in all cases, the pursuit of authenticity in education rests on various philosophical assumptions about the nature of truth, reality, ethics, and, ultimately, the aims of education.

With the influence of Dewey and 20th-century progressive movements in education, authenticity entered the vernacular of educational theory and practice. Attention to the relationship between learning environments and the “real” world has generated pervasive commitments to authentic learning, authentic pedagogies, authentic curriculum, and authentic assessment practices. Here, “authenticity” is used to track the verisimilitude of an educational practice with respect to some external reality. It constitutes an ontological claim about levels of “reality,” as well as an epistemological attitude toward learning as the construction of knowledge. In this respect, authenticity intersects debates about constructivism and relativism in education. Likewise, teachers are exhorted to be authentic qua teachers, elevating their true selves above institutional anonymity as a key part of effective teaching. This phenomenon trades on the values of truthfulness and autonomy that are prized in Western modernity but also problematized in the personal identity and ethics literature. The authenticity of students has also been championed as an educational aim, even as the methods for eliciting authenticity in others have been criticized as self-defeating or culturally limiting. Personal authenticity stands in a contested relationship to autonomy, which has been promoted as the key aim of liberal education. The project of creating authentic people through education remains an intense site of research and debate, with important implications for educational ethics and liberal values.

Keywords: authenticity, identity, autonomy, truth, ethics, constructivism, existentialism, essentialism, virtue

Few philosophical concepts are as notoriously fraught, and endlessly rehearsed, as authenticity. With its inherent connection to the ideals of truth and individual fulfillment, authenticity is, as Taylor puts it, “in some sense unrepudiable by moderns” (1991, p. 23). We in the West remain strongly influenced by the romantic essentialism of Rousseau, the radical freedom hypothesized by the existentialists, the identity politics of social justice struggles, and the decentered self-posited by postmoderns, even as these conceptions clash and leave countless questions unresolved. The need for some conception of “real identity” repeatedly announces itself in the quest for a meaningful life. The presumed value of authenticity transcends both colloquial and academic uses, licensing widespread confidence that authenticity should be pursued wherever possible.

Education is one of the most salient contexts in which authenticity becomes relevant to us. Through education, adults and children, teachers and students, come together for the purpose of transmitting the basic ideas and ideals of our culture and nurturing the development of its members. Education, like authenticity, is opposed to dissimulation, ignorance, manipulation, and related states of falsehood. As a culture we hold personal authenticity in high esteem and would understandably wish for our children both to become authentic and to be educated by those who embody such a virtue.

Since approximately the 1990s there has been extraordinary enthusiasm for authenticity in many aspects of education. The literature addressing the importance of authenticity in education, and the forms it can take, has ballooned into a field of its own. Broadly speaking, it consists of three main areas: authentic learning and assessment, teacher authenticity, and student authenticity as an educational aim. These applications of the concept of authenticity to education are further analyzable by type of education (K-12, higher education, distance education, etc.) and with reference to particular subjects, pedagogies, and technologies. Theories and studies of specific manifestations of authenticity in education abound.

It may be immediately objected that the semantics of authenticity across such widely varying contexts strain the presumed unity of the concept. Why assume that what makes a lesson plan “authentic” has anything to do with the authenticity of a human being? What is essential to authenticity, anyway?

The consistent element across applications of authenticity is a commitment to a certain relationship with truth. The authentic object, experience, or person is truthful about itself, and we value its authenticity for the same reasons that we value truthfulness. To be truthful is to correspond with, aspire to, or be identical with some ontological benchmark. A philosophical obstacle is embedded in every use of authenticity, therefore, insofar as truth is a notoriously disputed category. The “true” self, the “real” world, even “authentic” learning—these are all ontological constructs that invite serious philosophical scrutiny and give rise to divergent positions. Moreover, as Bernard Williams has insightfully argued, the zeal for truthfulness often coincides with skepticism regarding the possibility of truth per se, leaving the status of this essential relation unmoored (Williams, 2002). To what, then, are we being truthful when we are being authentic?

This will be the guiding question as I survey the major applications of authenticity to educational discourse. All uses of authenticity in education rest on various assumptions about epistemology, ontology, and ethics, even though these are often buried. Authentic learning—comprised of various educational elements such as pedagogy and assessment—proceeds from assumptions about the value of educational endeavors that mirror the world outside the classroom as closely as possible, as well as notions about how to establish such correspondence. Authentic teaching idealizes the role of a certain kind of teacher self as a precondition for meaningful learning and professional satisfaction, implicitly contrasting it with other versions of the self that are less “true.” Finally, authenticity as an aim of education—a condition to be cultivated in students—extends the normative thrust of personal authenticity to a teachable virtue. In each of these cases, philosophical puzzles and tensions arise.

Because it touches many areas of education, the discourse of authenticity is a prime opportunity to put philosophy in conversation with other disciplines and spheres of practice. The survey that follows is intended to illuminate aspects of an educational phenomenon that often go unrecognized, even as they influence pedagogy and policy. It is hoped that a deeper appreciation of the philosophical dimensions of authenticity will enable educators and researchers to approach the concept more critically, and ultimately to develop educational approaches that best meet their intended aims.

Authenticity in Philosophical Context

The concept of authenticity has two notable, and incompatible, sources in Western philosophy. On the one hand, it appears in ancient and early modern literature that is essentialist or “foundationalist” (Petraglia, 1998) about human existence. On the other hand, it is a hallmark of the 20th-century movement of existentialism, which is defined specifically by its antiessentialist or “Dadaist” (Cooper, 1983) approach to ontology. A brief glance as these influences will help to crystallize some of the warring intuitions behind contemporary uses of authenticity. While the historical discussions referred to here pertain only to personal authenticity, they encapsulate the philosophical stakes in all discussions of authenticity, including, as will be shown, the discourse of authentic learning.

Theory of Truth

In colloquial usage, authenticity is synonymous with being “true to oneself.” Without further metaphysical fanfare, the implication is that each person has a real self, and one’s choices can either reflect or obscure this foundational nub. In his influential lectures on authenticity, Trilling says that to be true to oneself means, “as carpenters and bricklayers use the word, [to be] precisely aligned with him” (1972, p. 4). Authenticity, then, is a relationship of correspondence: it evinces an overlap between some aspect of one’s behavior or choices and one or more aspects of who one “really” is.

This theory of truth is most explicit in the essentialist tradition in authenticity. The correspondence thesis “is at its core an ontological thesis: a belief is true if there exists an appropriate entity—a fact—to which it corresponds. If there is no such entity, the belief is false” (Glanzberg, 2016). In other words, truth depends on metaphysical realism. Correspondence views about authenticity may have origins in the ancient maxim to “know thyself” and the array of classical practices pertaining to “care of the self” (Foucault, 1988). In modernity, the conviction in a unique self that must be known and adhered to can be traced primarily to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the naturalism of the Romantics (Taylor, 1989). Conceptions of authenticity now familiar from popular culture and daytime television derive from these post-Enlightenment ideas about an “inner voice,” a “real you,” and the uniqueness of every human being.

The philosophical shortcomings of this type of view will not be recounted here, but some will surface in the remaining discussion. For now, it is important to stress the kind of onto-epistemological stance associated with these accounts of authenticity. The gist is that there is a truth about who one is (an object that is a candidate for authenticity), that this truth can be discovered or accessed (the knowability of the object), and that authenticity is the condition of fidelity to that true self (the correspondence relation). Conversely, since authenticity is not guaranteed, there must be a way for a person to fail to embody her own true self, that is, for the correspondence to not obtain, so that she is in- (or un-)authentic.

Many of these premises are shared, but approached from diametrically opposite assumptions, in the existentialist literature. For 19th- and 20th-century thinkers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre, the ontological state of human being is precisely to be without an individual essence or predetermined identity. To cleave to the illusion of a fixed identity or inescapable self is the onto-epistemological error of “bad faith,” or inauthenticity. In contrast, authenticity is the unflinching acceptance of freedom as the fundamental characteristic of human experience. It follows that selfhood is constructed through free choices rather than discovered as preexisting. Hence Nietzsche calls us to “become who you are!” (1974, §270) and Sartre claims that “existence precedes essence” (2007, p. 1).

Despite the constructivist, as opposed to essentialist, ontology here, as well as the flirtation with antirealism (in the sense that there is no actual self), it can be argued that authenticity still alludes to a kind of correspondence. The correspondence is simply between a person’s actions and the true “human condition” rather than the correspondence implied in essentialism, between a person’s actions and her unique identity (Bialystok, 2014). Puzzles for the existentialist account arise regarding motivation, deliberation, and the ethics of what we in fact choose; these will also not be enumerated here.

It is unnecessary to take a position here between the essentialist and the existentialist versions of authenticity; both are susceptible to serious critique, and both are anchored in powerful intuition. In each case, the use of authenticity implies a true reference point with which the authentic person or thing corresponds. In each case, this reference point is philosophically slippery. On the essentialist account, I am authentic if I am true to my “real self,” whereas on the existentialist account, I am authentic if I repudiate the illusion of fixed identity. Both these conceptions infiltrate educational uses of authenticity and lead to divergent accounts of how to make education authentic.

Theory of Value

In addition to the ontological and epistemological foundations of authenticity talk, there are inescapable ethical connotations in all its usages. Regardless of the conception of authenticity in question, to describe someone or something as “authentic” is to provide a positive appraisal. The theory of value behind authenticity language is rarely made explicit, but the logical link between authenticity and truth gives us a starting point. Williams (2002) posits that the value of authenticity is composed of the twin “virtues of truth,” Accuracy and Sincerity (2002, p. 44; original capitals). Accuracy is the “disposition . . . to . . . acquiring a correct belief” and sincerity “centrally contains the motivation, if one is purporting to tell someone something . . . to say what one actually believes” (Williams, 2002, p. 44). These dispositions are virtuous because they allow individuals and groups to effectively “pool information,” make informed choices, and establish relations of trust (Williams, 2002, p. 57).

Using Williams’ categories, we can see how accuracy and sincerity encapsulate the supposed value of authenticity and also point to the risks of taking its value for granted. If we take authenticity to be truthfulness to an external reality, the criterion of accuracy becomes significant. The authentic lesson will only be valuable in so far as it accurately replicates the way this subject is pursued in the “real” world. When it is an individual person whose authenticity is in question, the accuracy of the relation is even more critical to the question of value. If I am wrong about who I am, then behaving as that person will surely not produce the normative benefits of being authentic. Yet in order to achieve the accuracy necessary for authenticity, we must assume the existence and knowability of the relevant self or reality, and this returns us to ontological and epistemological quagmires.

The value of sincerity is likewise self-explanatory but surprisingly delicate. We value truth-telling to others and to ourselves for obvious reasons, pragmatic as well as moral. But sincerity can be deceptive if we fail to question the truth of what is reported. A teacher could in all sincerity inform her students that the moon is made of cheese. Without accuracy, the value of sincerity is at times not worth celebrating. Nor does the value of sincerity guarantee authenticity. If I always tell others the truth, but behave in a way that is untruthful to some aspect of myself, I could in principle be sincere yet inauthentic (Bialystok, 2011).

A further conceit of authenticity is the supposition that my being true to myself is valuable in itself, irrespective of the kind of self I happen to be. Being real is, at it were, independently virtuous. This seems to either rule out the possibility of an authentic villain, or commits one to the unpalatable conclusion that the virtue of authenticity is more important than other basic virtues. As Williams ask, “If there is such a thing as the ‘real self’ of an individual, what reason is there to think that it must coincide with an underlying character of honor, considerateness, and compassion?” (2002, p. 182). This has immediate educational implications as soon as we consider the demand that teachers be authentic.

As an inherently normative concept, authenticity announces its own value each time it is used. In the remaining sections the value of authenticity in education will be critically examined with respect to some of these considerations.

Authentic Learning

“Authentic learning” is to be understood as a broad heading to capture all the uses of authenticity in education that are nonpersonal. In other words, rather than referring to the authenticity of a specific person or group of people (teachers, students), authentic learning refers to the authenticity of some nonhuman feature of the educational process: curriculum, pedagogies, assessment, educational technology, tasks, and so on. These multiple educational commitments arose, and earned the label of “authentic,” in response to perceived deficiencies in more traditional forms of education. Teacher-centered, undifferentiated instruction, and decontextualized learning tasks have come to be viewed as misaligned with features of student psychology or the aims of education, and hence as inauthentic. Of course, these attitudes are also characteristic of the constructivist movement in education. This section therefore begins with an overview of constructivism and traces its philosophical relationship to authenticity.

Constructivism and Authentic Pedagogy

Constructivism is a large family of views with roots in the psychological, philosophical, and political ideas associated with “progressivism” in education. Generally, constructivism sees learning as an exercise in construction rather than the passive transmission of inert facts. Constructivists:

do not believe that individuals come into the world with their “cognitive data banks” already prestocked with empirical knowledge, or with pre-embedded epistemological criteria or methodological rules . . . by and large human knowledge, and the criteria and methods we use in our inquiries, are all constructed.

(Phillips, 1995, p. 399)

The nature of the constructedness at issue here is interpreted differently by various thinkers. For example, while Ernst von Glaserfeld (2008) argues that the construction of knowledge is essentially individual, social constructivists claim that learning is necessarily interactive, so knowledge is always coconstructed (Baxter-Magolda, 1999).

Constructivist beliefs are descendants of Dewey’s influential views on the connection between experience and education (1938), as well as Piaget’s revolutionary theory of the role of the subject’s own cognitive processes in acquiring knowledge (Phillips, 1995). These figures occasioned major shifts in our understanding of learning and knowledge, which in turn provoked widespread adjustments in pedagogy and educational paradigms. Along with child-centered pedagogy, constructivism results in an emphasis on the student’s learning experience and the opportunity for meaningful engagement with subject matter. Petraglia also explains how constructivism, with its attention to social variables and suspicion of hegemonic knowledge, serves as an appealing antidote to the perceived elitism and inaccessibility of more traditional forms of education (1998, p. 115).

The educational outcomes of constructivism often appear to be indistinguishable from initiatives designed to promote authentic learning. For example, constructivists emphasize the involvement of students in the learning process (Splitter, 2009, p. 139). “Active learning” has been described as “students actively constructing meaning grounded in their own experience rather than simply absorbing and reproducing knowledge” (Newmann, Marks, & Gamoran, 1996, p. 281). Similarly, “central aspects of authentic learning are to take learners’ perspectives and to create a learning environment by referring the content to the learner’s actual life and experiences. Thereby, the content of learning is assumed to become genuine and meaningful.” (Andersson & Andersson, 2005, p. 424). Constructivist and authentic pedagogies both highlight the importance of “engagement” and student autonomy in creating effective learning environments (Perry, 2011; Bonnett & Cuypers 2003; Andersson & Andersson, 2005; Knobloch, 2003). Both constructivist educational theory and many conceptions of authentic learning view education as a process that hinges on the student’s own lived experiences and cognitive resources, rather than a repertoire of static truths.

Kreber et al.’s empirical studies of academic identities and authenticity in higher learning also reveal significant overlap between constructivist pedagogy and the presumed authenticity of the instructor (Kreber, Klampfleitner, McCune, Bayne, & Knottenbelt, 2007; Kreber & Klampfleitner, 2012). Authentic instructors were seen to implement the components of Baxter-Magolda’s (1999) theory of constructive developmental pedagogy, such as promoting student self-authorship and connecting curriculum to students’ experiences (Kreber, 2010b). According to some of the most influential voices in the area of authentic learning, a constructivist learning environment just is an authentic learning environment (Slavkin, 2004).

Metaphysically this is an unexpected pairing. Recall that authenticity communicates a form of correspondence between a thing’s manifestation in the world and some “real” benchmark. Authentic learning would seem to be authentic in virtue of its identity with reality outside of the educational context; the authenticity of knowledge gained through such a process would then be verified by its overlap with what others take to be knowledge. Yet constructivism is resistant to these premises, and in some cases suspicious of the existence of external reality or verifiable knowledge at all (Carlile & Jordan, 2012). To the extent that constructivist approaches to learning dwell on the cognitive processes of a group of learners, they seem to elude any candidacy for authenticity understood as correspondence.

It may then be argued that what makes an educational process authentic is not correspondence with external reality, but with some other integral facet of education. For example, authentic learning is true to students’ lived realities, whereas inauthentic education is not. Authentic education could then be independent of what counts as knowledge in the “real world” but still faithful to what a particular community of learners apprehends as knowledge, fulfilling the desiderata of both authenticity and constructivism.

This would amount to a fairly arcane usage of “authenticity,” however. It is counterintuitive to think that authentic education could proceed in relative isolation from external standards of truth and reality, or at least that such a condition would be desirable. And in much literature on authentic learning, the authenticity of an educational task is verified precisely by its accurate mirroring of some features of the world outside school, rather than internal criteria (see section in this article entitled Authentic Pedagogy and the “Real World”). Authenticity and constructivism are positioned to provide different answers to the question of correspondence.

Furthermore, whether constructivism eschews or embraces external standards of authenticity, it is nonsensical to speak of any such correspondence without accepting as a starting point the nonidentity of the learning environment and the “real world.” A learning environment can only correspond to something if it is nonidentical with it. However, constructivist forefather Dewey denies the duality of school and life that gives rise to the possibility of any correspondence at all. In My Pedagogic Creed (1897), he declares: “I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” Education that attempts to mimic “genuine reality” is self-defeating; the environment in which students learn constitutes its own “form of life” and requires no authentication from other forms (1897, article 2). There is no “real world” with which the classroom corresponds, because the classroom is already as real as anything else.

The tensions between constructivism and authenticity, which typically masquerade as cognates in the educational literature, have been insightfully deconstructed by Petraglia (1998) and Splitter (2009). The problem here is both ontological and epistemological. Ontologically, constructivism is antifoundationalist or antirealist, while authenticity is foundationalist or at least realist. Correspondence is impossible or irrelevant on the former, and crucial on the latter. Epistemically, authenticity requires the knowability of the object prior to the process of learning, whereas in constructivism, at least on some versions, there is no further object to be known beyond what is constructed in the learning environment. For example, the practice of “preauthentication”—the notion that “one can prior to entering a given teaching situation, make a problem or learning environment authentic” (Petraglia, 1998, p. 99)—makes epistemic judgments that “[deny] . . . the contingency of cognitive processing that is the very soul of constructivism” (Petraglia, 1998, p. 103). As Dewey sees it, “all difficulties connected with the problem of knowledge spring from . . . the assumption that the true and valid object of knowledge is that which has being prior to and independent of the operations of knowing” (Dewey, quoted in Phillips, 1995, p. 400). Yet teachers are held to master many objects of knowledge, which are reified in the curriculum rather than generated through students’ “operations of knowing.”

The result may be that the teacher enjoys the certainty of preexisting knowledge and objective reality while designing pedagogy that holds these to be constructs:

Constructivist educators, wedded as we are to a basically social scientific framework of knowledge production, find ourselves in a bind: we genuinely wish to adapt a constructivist model of cognition to our pedagogy while exercising our prerogatives in determining the nature of the real world for our students. We have avoided this dilemma largely by ignoring the antifoundationalism latent in constructivism.

(Petraglia, 1998, p. 7)

Petraglia (1998) and Splitter (2009) warn of the educational pitfalls that attend the excesses of constructivism, such as unchecked relativism. Splitter notes that “constructivism is silent on the ontological status of what is thereby constructed” (2009, p. 139). If truth claims are not verifiable by reference to external standards, then learning processes emphasizing student experience can risk sliding into a more global form of epistemic antifoundationalism, according to which there is no truth or falsity beyond subjective interpretation (Luper, 2004). The marriage of constructivism and authenticity in education parallels Williams’ (2002) observation that a commitment to truthfulness can belie a deep skepticism with respect to truth as such.

Resisting this, Splitter advocates a reincorporation of the correspondence criterion into the constructivist version of authentic learning:

To prevent constructivism from turning into a crudely relativistic form of constructionism, which is likely to offend on psychological, ethical and political grounds, we need to ensure that the fruits of students’ constructs are linked, appropriately, to that which qualifies as genuine knowledge from the perspectives of experts within the “real-world” disciplines.

(Splitter, 2009, 140)

This reconciliation is possible, Splitter argues, by viewing the authenticity of an educational activity and the personal authenticity of students as “aspects of one and the same endeavor” (2009, p. 146). He proposes that authenticity is evinced through a normative, rather than ontological, correspondence: “claims of authenticity are value judgments” and “it is [the child’s] authenticity which really matters” (2009, p. 143).

Petraglia, meanwhile, advocates “rhetoricized constructivism” (1998, p. 160), which takes seriously the constructivist’s skepticism about correspondence while resisting relativism: “we argue for the superiority of our claims in the name of better . . . understanding” (1998, p. 162). The “pedagogical stance” is “one that persuades learners rather than informs them,” so that both strict foundationalism and subjectivism are ruled out (1998, p. 163).

Authentic Pedagogy and the “Real World”

Many conceptions of authentic learning are parallel to the tenets of constructivist pedagogy, despite the difficulties this poses for the correspondence thesis. Regarding the authenticity of these processes, we can say that they correspond to views about developmental psychology or conceptions of effective teaching, period; they are not authentic in virtue of some explicit correspondence with “truth” outside the classroom. In this sense, they share the antiessentialist sensibilities of existentialist conceptions of authenticity. Authentic learning, when expressed through constructivism, emphasizes process and creation rather than discovery or reproduction.

At the same time, however, conceptions of authentic learning often emphasize that what makes a classroom practice or educational technique “authentic” is precisely its continuity with noneducational or “real-world” practices—even when constructivism is also touted as the preferred pedagogical model (Newmann & Wehlage, 1993; Lombardi, 2007). “Authentic” learning is sometimes used as shorthand for learning that is immediately transferable to other contexts, because it is conceived exclusively as preparation (Gauthier, 2004; Knobloch, 2003; Herrington & Oliver, 2000; Smith & Parker, 2011). This trend is especially apparent in professional or vocational training, in which the similarity between the educational environment and the work environment may be the essential ingredient of effective education (Webster-Wright, 2009; Smith & Parker, 2011; Huang, 2011; Yoon Jin & Lee, 2012). For students studying to be doctors, firefighters, business managers, and other kinds of professionals, “authentic learning pedagogy not only allows students to engage in realistic tasks using real-world resources and tools, but it also provides opportunities for students to learn with intention by thinking and acting like professionals as they address real problems” (Herrington, Parker, & Boase-Jelinek, 2014).

Dewey’s denial of the separation, and ontological hierarchy, between the “real world” and the classroom may spell trouble for the constructivist version of authentic learning, but when the classroom is explicitly designed as preparation for a particular function, this worry dissipates. There is an important ontological distinction between a classroom in which students learn about policing, say, and the actual context in which police do their jobs. The authenticity of the former is plausibly understood as a measurement of its applicability to the latter (for reservations about this view, see Splitter, 2009).

Questions then arise regarding how to measure degrees of correspondence to the “real world.” Ashton claims that “current notions of authentic learning appear to be based upon selective or unclear conceptions of real‐worldness.” (2010, p. 15) For example, the correspondence to the real world can be conceptualized in terms of location, as in “situated learning” (Lave & Wenger, 1991); in terms of content, as in when students are given the same problems as professionals in their field (Herrington & Oliver, 2000); in terms of relationships, such as the opportunity to interact with practitioners (Stein, Isaacs, & Andrews, 2004); or, more self-referentially, in terms of the learners’ “real” lives outside the classroom (Andersson & Andersson, 2005). In all these cases, there is a plausible but not exhaustive account of “realness” at work.

On some versions of “real-worldness,” the features of the world to which learning is supposed to correspond are themselves constructivist. If the practitioners whom the students are supposed to emulate are themselves pursuing their work through “intentional and purposeful” reflection, (Herrington et al., 2014, p. 25) or “construction of meaning,” (Newmann et al., 1996, p. 284), then constructivism comes full circle: to learn through constructivism is tantamount to preparing for the “real” world.

One of the most common types of learning in which the “real-world” conception of authenticity appears is teacher education itself (Herrington et al., 2014; Hardre et al., 2013, 2010; Hanegan, Friden, & Nelson, 2009). For good reason, preservice teachers, as well as in-service teachers seeking professional development (Webster-Wright, 2009), are thought to learn best through methods that correspond to the “real” environment of teaching. They are given tasks to perform, for instance, that they could also assign to a group of students. Because teachers are learners too, “authentic” learning for teachers often translates into a recursive application of whatever pedagogy is considered best practice for the students they teach—and is hence usually constructivist. Newmann et al. (1996) explicitly blend the precepts of constructivism and authenticity in their pedagogical recommendations, claiming that correspondence to the real world is necessary but insufficient to guarantee authenticity.

The tensions between constructivism and authenticity are therefore countered to some extent by this logical synchronicity. If the thing that authentic learning corresponds with is a “real-world” problem or process that involves constructivism, then the two concepts operate in an ontological loop. Essentialism articulates the demand for correspondence that prevents authenticity from floating away from reality, and constructivism, as a description of how both students and “real-world” practitioners solve problems, provides content for the concept of reality or truth to which essentialism refers.

Authentic Assessment

As a critical component of teaching and learning, assessment practices have also been rolled into the extensive discussion of authenticity in education. Literature addressing how to assess student learning in an “authentic” manner has exploded since the 1990s and continues to proliferate (e.g., Valencia, Hiebert, & Afflerbach, 1994; Janesick, 2006). Here I will briefly indicate how some of the strands in this research compare with the philosophical questions about authenticity.

The correspondence relation that is intuitively implied by authenticity language appears to be straightforward in the case of assessment. As assessment constitutes a way of tracking student learning, the authenticity of an assessment technique can be understood as a measure of the technique’s accuracy in tracking what the student has actually learned as compared to some established benchmark of knowledge:

authentic assessment broadly refers to an alignment between assessment tools and skills manifest within valued criterion situations. Stated differently, authentic assessment calls for assessments to align with the same skills that are needed in “real-world” settings.

(Hathcoat, Penn, Barnes, & Comer, 2016, p. 893)

Where “real-world” measurements are not appropriate, student learning is assessed against embedded curricular “standards” (Burke, 2011). This conception of authenticity-as-truthful-correspondence can be recognized in almost all discussions of authentic assessment. Furthermore, the authenticity of assessment is often defined with reference to the authenticity of other educational practices, including the authenticity of the task to be assessed (Meyers & Nulty, 2009; Darling-Hammond & Snyder, 2000; Fox-Turnbull, 2006).

Like other applications of the essentialist conception, authentic assessment so understood begs ontological and epistemological questions about the “truth” (in this case, of the students’ learning) which is supposedly trackable. It must assume that there is a fact about student learning, which can be more or less accurately revealed through assessment practices, and which has some instrumental value for the student’s educational outcomes and future prospects (Gulikers et al., 2008); indeed, this is the presumption behind all assessment. How can this information about student learning or student achievement be accessed? Moreover, how can the techniques for accessing such information be assessed for their own accuracy? Such concerns prompt discussion of “validity” in assessment practices. Following scientific and social scientific practice, validity is usually corroborated by adding layers of correspondence—correspondence between the assessments issued by independent evaluators, for example, or correspondence between the outcomes of different forms of assessment (Hathcoat et al., 2016). Sometimes students’ self- and peer assessments are used to triangulate teacher assessments and test the “accuracy” of students’ own perceptions of their performance (Kearney et al., 2016). The more consistent assessment appears across these different measurements, the more “authentic” it is considered to be.

The inherently subjective nature of assessment is nonetheless recognized in many discussions of validity and accuracy, highlighting the precariousness of the sought-after correspondence. Students and teachers, for example, may disagree about whether a form of assessment correctly tracks what a given task was supposed to teach, or how well students learned it. Hence, Gulikers, Bastiaens, Kirschner, and Kester “argue that for authentic assessments to reach their potential . . . it is imperative that students perceive their assessments as authentic” (2008, p. 401). Fox-Turnbull (2006) has likewise emphasized the influence of teacher knowledge on the ability to provide meaningful feedback in formative assessment. In short, despite the foundationalist operations behind the ideal of authenticity, it is recognized that there is no objective perspective from which student achievement can be accurately assessed, and hence no ultimately reliable form of authentic assessment.


The authenticity of technology in education has prompted its own branch of research, intersecting and diverging from the wider corpus on educational authenticity. Persistent questions about the truthfulness relation between authentic learning and something “real” are compounded in the case of technology, and especially digital platforms, whose “realness” is already the subject of intense philosophical inquiry. Two major areas of concern can be identified here: the use of technology in “live” classrooms to facilitate authentic learning, and the use of technology to facilitate distance or online learning.

First, technology has long been used to enhance student learning and expose students in traditional classrooms to experiences and forms of work that are typical of the world outside, from carpentry tools and small machines to robots and digital photography. The “authenticity” of such techniques relates to questions of correspondence with reality and can be classified along with generic questions about authentic learning (Turnbull, 2002; Snape & Fox-Turnbull, 2013). As technology has become rapidly more sophisticated, however, it has also offered educators opportunities to simulate “real-world” experiences through virtual platforms, thereby offering students greater authenticity through transparently inauthentic means. This technique is especially relevant in professional training (e.g., for nurses [Rush, Acton, Tolley, Marks-Maran, & Burke, 2010] or teachers [Brown, 1999]). Meanwhile, in primary and secondary classrooms, virtual technologies or “augmented reality” can be used, not to reproduce a certain reality, but to “enhance” it so that the content is more engaging for students (and perhaps more authentic in the constructivist sense) (Mitchell & DeBay, 2012). These phenomena raise questions about the authenticity of a learning environment that is, at least in one sense, unambiguously artificial.

More recursively, the ability to use and manipulate advanced technological tools (“digital literacy”) has become so integral to economic and professional success that teaching students to code, program, and design software is now itself authentic in the original sense of the word. Hence, students are taught skills such as video game design (Frydenberg, 2015) not only because it renders more appealing some first-order educational content, but, more importantly, because such skills are themselves considered an essential part of 21st-century educational content. The implication that modern reality is, at least in part, a digital reality recalls Baudrillard’s analysis of postmodernity as an infinite series of signs, prompting the worry that anyone can create reality, and “pedagogy vanishes except as form” (Giroux, 1988, p. 13).

A second, related set of philosophical issues arise in the use of technology to facilitate distance education, or “e-learning.” Much as technological simulation allows students in a classroom to experience tasks that are not physically available on site, virtual learning allows students around the world to participate in “classrooms” that have no physical identity. What is the ontological status of such forms of education? Typically, they are considered “real” or “authentic” in so far as they accurately mimic or reproduce the effective features of traditional classrooms (Herrington, Reeves, & Oliver, 2010; Herrington et al., 2014). The nontechnological learning environment—whose authenticity is usually in question in investigations of authentic learning—thus becomes the “real” benchmark against which to assess the authenticity of digital learning environments, producing a regress.

A further paradox in the authenticity of e-learning is that the authenticity of traditional classrooms continues to be connected to the effectiveness of constructivist pedagogy, which is very difficult to reproduce in a virtual environment (Herrington et al., 2010; Parker, Maor, & Herrington, 2013). Insofar as authentic learning is supposed to depend on such features as collaboration, student engagement, and real-time inquiry, the authenticity of online learning is compromised by its noncorrespondence with “real-life” classrooms. Advocates continue working to reconcile the ideal of constructivist education with the promise of accessible online learning, so that the latter meets familiar standards of educational authenticity (Herrington et al., 2010).

Teacher Authenticity

In tandem with the burgeoning enthusiasm for authentic learning, teachers have been encouraged to cultivate authenticity as a personal virtue that is supposedly integral to their professional success and satisfaction. Teacher authenticity is widely assumed to promote, or even be synonymous with, effective teaching (Chickering, Dalton, & Stamm, 2006; Cranton & Carusetta, 2004). This belief is intuitive in light of Williams’ observations about the value of sincerity and accuracy. If teachers are not sincere or not accurate, we have good reason to worry about the quality of the education being imparted to students. But as authenticity is a self-relation, it is thought that teachers must be “true to themselves” in order to uphold a truthful relation with those they teach. To recall Polonius’ famous advice in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true, and thou canst not then be false to any man.”

What does it mean for a teacher to be “true to her self”? As with all instances of authenticity, the authenticity of a teacher begs the correspondence question. To what am I being truthful when I am being authentic? Some common answers include: “my” values, “my” personality, or “my” feelings. The challenge is then to provide a principled explanation of what those are and how we know they are “truer” than some alternatives. Inverting the question, we may more poignantly ask: How could I fail to be myself? If I perceive myself to be deceitful with respect to some aspect of myself, is that deceit not also part of who I am? From what perspective can I adjudicate these competing truth claims? Contemporary philosophers continue to debate these issues (Feldman, 2015; Frankfurt, 1988; Velleman, 2006).

In some literature, the authenticity of a teacher is reduced to, or taken to be evidenced in, other forms of educational authenticity. For example, a teacher is sometimes thought to be authentic in so far as he uses authentic pedagogy and assessment (Kreber & Klampfleitner, 2013). These interdefined conceptions are noteworthy in that they confirm the difficulty of locating an independent truth with which the authentic self corresponds. They also point to the ever-present role of value theory in discussions of educational authenticity; they indicate that teacher authenticity is valuable because it promotes authentic learning, which is in turn valuable because of some relationship it bears with truth. In the remainder of this section, however, I focus on accounts of teacher authenticity that refer to the teacher’s personal identity or self-relation.

Essentialism and Virtue

The search for the true self has never been easy, and educators and scholars who are concerned with finding the teacher’s true self have revisited many well-worn paths in the long history of Western philosophy on the subject. This section recounts some of the ways in which conceptions of teacher authenticity reprise the essentialist tropes of Romanticism, even as they appeal to existentialist notions such as freedom and self-creation. They also frequently instantiate the “virtue conception” of authenticity (Bialystok, 2014) and make approving reference to Charles Taylor’s work on the ethics of authenticity (1991). As a disclaimer, because of the myriad influences on this discourse, and the relative absence of shared philosophical language, views of teacher authenticity are hard to neatly categorize.

Many teachers would describe teaching as part of their “identity.” Indeed, some hold that their teacher-ness actually precedes or is independent of what they do as a profession, making it more akin to eye color or personality type than a day job. Carolin Kreber expresses such a view when she says: “I want teaching to be an important aspect of what I do because it is part of who I am. It is part of my identity” (Kreber, 2013, p. 23). Few other professions tend to generate such strong identity claims. One rarely hears that being a plumber, an accountant, or a taxi driver is a necessary part of someone’s identity. Teaching invokes the self in a particular way, giving rise to widespread concern for authenticity.

Because of the profound link many feel between teaching and personal identity, accounts of teacher authenticity are often reminiscent of the essentialist version of authenticity associated with 18th-century Romanticism. In the literature and poetry of figures such as Herder, Hölderlin, Schelling, Rousseau, and Goethe, the essentialness and naturalness of individual identity was contrasted with the contingent and corrupting forces of society (Taylor, 1989; Guignon, 2004; Berman, 1970). Authenticity proceeds from this basic distinction: “man’s first idea is to separate himself from all that is not himself” (Rousseau, 2006). The metaphysics and value of authenticity are then explicated in terms of interiority: “Our ultimate happiness is to live in conformity with this [inner] voice, that is, to be entirely ourselves” (Taylor, 1989, p. 362). This immutable core of selfhood was thought to be identified and liberated through various channels, such as art, poetry, or spirituality.

Romantic and essentialist language can be readily found in the literature on teacher authenticity. Parker Palmer, in the popular book The Courage to Teach, writes: “Any authentic call ultimately comes from the voice of the teacher within, the voice that invites me to honor the nature of my true self” (Palmer, 1998, p. 29). Clark Moustakas, in an early treatise on teacher authenticity, describes authenticity as correspondence to “self-values,” which are “the values and resources which exist within regions of the self” (Moustakas, 1966, p. 4). Cranton’s influential work on teacher authenticity refers repeatedly to the “genuine self” (Cranton, 2001). Teacher authenticity has also been described as “soul work” (Dirkx, 2006) and “presence” (Kornelsen, 2006). These formulations express confidence in an essential teacher self that can be authentically reflected in practice. And, much as the Romantic poets and philosophers suggest, teachers are encouraged to give themselves opportunities to access this essential identity through reflective (Dirkx, 2006; Brookfield, 1995; Vine, 2012), spiritual (Chickering, Dalton, & Stamm, 2006), and artistic (Kreber, 2013) practices.

Many philosophers have expressed skepticism about the possibility of locating the “genuine self” and the ontological hierarchy that it presumes. The essentialist view of authenticity is also susceptible to ethical objections. Supposing that there is a “real me” couched within some false alternatives, why assume that this is a good me to be? The tension between being yourself and being good was already apparent in Rousseau’s own autobiographical argument for authenticity, the Confessions, which begins: “I am not made like anyone I’ve met; I dare say I am not made like anyone who exists. I may not be better, but at least I am different” (Rousseau, 2000, section I, para. 5). Absent further normative argument, the value of authenticity risks elevating fidelity to oneself to an independent virtue, irrespective of what that self is like. The unqualified essentialist position has the bizarre consequence that we should wish for a truly nasty person to be authentic (Williams, 2002). As a way of being that is endlessly self-reflective and self-affirming, authenticity has also been associated with the vice of narcissism (Taylor, 1991; Lasch, 1978; Thompson, 2015).

Charles Taylor brought the moral underside of authenticity to wider cultural awareness with The Ethics of Authenticity (1991) and offered a virtue-based alternative that renewed interest in authenticity as an ethical ideal (Varga, 2012). Arguing from a communitarian framework, Taylor describes selfhood as fundamentally embedded in and constituted by cultural relations (Taylor, 1989), rather than an individualistic retreat from others. In this light, “authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands,” (Taylor, 1991, p. 41). Taylor posits that we manifest authenticity by committing ourselves to “horizons of significance,” which express the self by transcending it (1991, p. 35).

Despite tensions between the individuality implicit in the essentialist account and the relationality at the heart of Taylor’s communitarian version, the notion that authenticity may require virtuous behavior and be opposed to egoism has been energetically assimilated into many contemporary essentialist accounts of teacher authenticity (Vine, 2012; Kreber, 2010a; Hansen, 2007). Indeed, even as teachers are invited to “be themselves,” the value of teacher authenticity is usually expressed indirectly in terms of care for others and moral goodness in general (Cranton & Carusetta, 2004; Grimmett & Neufeld, 1994, pp. 4–5; Chickering, Dalton, & Stamm, 2006). The condition of being true to oneself is thereby transmuted into an account of other-regarding virtue. “Care”—a term that is confusingly identical with Heidegger’s (1996) existentialist and amoral description of being—is used in the virtue conceptions of authenticity to describe the investment of the self in the well-being of others. Specifically, teacher authenticity is sometimes expressed as a degree of the teacher’s commitment to students (e.g., Frego, 2006; Brookfield, 2006; Malm, 2008).

The common equation between being an authentic teacher and being a good person suggests something important about teaching as a relational enterprise. If teachers consider their work to be reflective of, or integral to, their identity, there is a good chance that they also care deeply about students and embrace teaching-related virtues such as sincerity and generosity. It may then be appropriate to say that they are true to themselves by being good teachers. They access their authentic selves by turning inward, but experience themselves as authentic by turning outward.

These intuitions pull simultaneously on individualist and communitarian ideas about selfhood. They also threaten to collapse the ontological puzzle of authenticity into the ethical one. The more that teacher authenticity is described as a function of virtue, the less it signals a reliable correspondence with something essential about the teacher’s identity. Once this correspondence is weakened, it becomes difficult to fathom that a wicked or selfish teacher could nonetheless be authentic, or that a moral teacher could be inauthentic (Bialystok, 2015).

Existentialism and Poststructuralism

Notwithstanding contemporary manifestations of essentialism, confidence in the integrity and realness of a core self has been steadily eroded in Western thought since the Romantic period. Existentialism—an umbrella term for a set of theories spanning the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries—rejected the Platonic metaphysics associated with most of Western philosophy and redirected ontological attention to the state of being human, rather than to the essence of this or that being. In so doing, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre contributed to a revised conception of the self as temporally unfolding, creatively becoming, and freely self-determining. This self has none of the ontological solidity of an object; it is marked instead by its indeterminacy and (in Sartre’s case) nonidentity with itself (Sartre, 1984).

However, despite these ontological inversions, the vocabulary of authenticity is preserved and reinvigorated in existentialist thought. Here, authenticity refers to an individual’s willingness to assume the responsibility of freedom and the refusal to let one’s life be determined by conformity and passivity. Human being is the kind of being, to paraphrase Heidegger, which is essentially concerned with its own being (Heidegger, 1996). Such an image is highly resonant to many teachers. The authentic teacher, from an existentialist perspective, chooses teaching deliberately and remains actively attuned to her own potentiality-of-being (Kreber et al., 2007; Brook, 2009). She accepts her responsibility for self-creation and sees authenticity as a Nietzschean project of becoming the self that she can be (Cooper, 1983). Because of existentialism’s emphasis on nonconformity and the critical examination of one’s own existence, existentialist thinkers such as Heidegger are also frequently cited by advocates of the essentialist account of teacher authenticity (e.g., Cranton & Carusetta, 2004).

The conception of identity forwarded in existentialism was pushed in new directions by psychoanalytic and poststructuralist thought, which have also widely influenced educational theory (Britzman, 1992; Stillwaggon, 2008; Greene, 1994). In the work of such thinkers as Foucault (1997) and Butler (1993), the self is explicitly unstable, contextually variant, and repeatedly constituted through our actions and interactions. Indeed, it no longer makes sense to speak of “identity” in this context, but rather, “subjectivity.” Foucault argues that “the relationships we have to have with ourselves are not ones of identity, rather, they must be relationships of differentiation, of creation, of innovation” (Foucault, 1997, p. 166). Authenticity, understood as correspondence to the true self, loses its plausibility and aspirational force from this perspective.

Viewing the problem of teacher identity through such postmodern frameworks captures the ambiguity many teachers experience and deflates some common sense intuitions about authenticity. If one’s sense of oneself as an integrated subject is always fundamentally beset by tensions, there is no persistent “teacher identity” to which one can unproblematically remain truthful. If anything, being or becoming a teacher often requires distancing oneself from familiar aspects of identity and self-consciously adopting a “role” that produces internal contradiction. Indeed, “. . . teacher is a role word. Roles embody some of our highest aspirations and provide social mechanisms for shaping action in their light. They are parts people play in society and do not describe individuals” (Buchmann, 1993, p. 147).

Butler’s concept of performativity—initially invoked to describe gender—can be applied to an understanding of how teachers orient themselves to a culturally circumscribed role. Butler argues “there is no ‘I’ that precedes the gender that it is said to perform; the repetition, and the failure to repeat, produce a string of performances that constitute and contest the coherence of that ‘I’” (Butler, 1993, p. 311). Likewise, teacher identity involves the “performance” and repetition of a series of behaviors that are expected of teachers, which over time sediments into a felt sense of being a teacher, but never constitutes complete alignment (Taubman, 1990; Britzman, 1992).

The critiques of the essentialist or unified self deriving from existentialism and poststructuralism cast the meaning of teacher authenticity in a new light. In contrast to the confidence in an “inner voice” that recalls Romantic ideals, the antiessentialist views of teacher identity are skeptical that we can or ought to anchor teacher identity in a core self or fixed conception of virtue. To the extent that authenticity is even thought possible, it depends on the decentering of identity markers rather than correspondence with an internal truth. If anything, it is inauthentic for teachers to present themselves to their students as having a solid or integrated identity that is seamlessly reflected in their teaching.

Perceptions of Authenticity in Teaching

Select empirical studies have examined the degree to which conceptions of authenticity in teaching align with various philosophical models. Kreber et al.’s extensive research mapped professors’ and students’ implicit conceptions of teacher authenticity onto a variety of theoretical paradigms, elucidated through 13 distinct features, and tested the strength of the association between each feature of authenticity and the perception of effective teaching (Kreber, 2010b, pp. 177–178). Respondents strongly associated authenticity in teaching with “being sincere, candid, or honest” and with “care for the subject, students, and interest in engaging students with the subject around ideas that matter” (Kreber & Klampfleitner, 2013, p. 479). Aspects of the essentialist view of authenticity, and especially the virtue conception, seem to undergird these intuitions. They also resemble Cranton and Carusetta’s criteria of “being genuine, showing consistency between values and actions, relating to others in such a way as to encourage their authenticity, and living a critical life” (2004, p. 7). Features associated with the existentialist model of authenticity, meanwhile, were the least prominent in subjects’ descriptions of teacher authenticity (Kreber & Klampfleitner, 2013, p. 483). Ramezanzadeh, Reza Adel, and Zareian, however, found that “Heideggerian” traits such as “awareness of one’s goals and possibilities” and “taking responsibility for one’s actions” figured prominently in their subjects’ conceptions of teacher authenticity (2016, p. 814).

Irrespective of the philosophical models invoked in lay people’s conceptions of teacher authenticity, it is noteworthy that these studies reveal a near-unanimous conviction that authenticity is indicative of good or effective teaching. It is not truthfulness to the teacher’s own self that earns students’ praise, so much as care and competence in the role of being a teacher, which may then be interpreted as a sign of authenticity. Kreber and Klampfleitner found associations between authenticity in teaching and “caring for teaching, caring for students and availability” as well as “interest in, commitment to and enthusiasm for subject and desired effect on students” (2013, p. 474). Subjects in Vannini’s empirical work also agreed that “the most authentic component of teaching is the possibility to be useful to students” (2006, p. 250).

In sum, most perceptions of authenticity in teaching reprise intuitions about personal identity and the value of certain ways of being that are familiar from such figures as Rousseau and Taylor. However, they tend to do so without taking on most of the philosophical baggage introduced by these positions, but rather with a view to what makes for effective teaching and professional satisfaction.

Authenticity as an Educational Aim

One of the reasons for the imperative of teacher authenticity is the belief that authentic teachers will cultivate authentic students (Kreber, 2013, p. 45). Of all the uses of authenticity in education, the authenticity of students is perhaps the most taken for granted as an educational aim, and the currency in which other forms of authenticity often find their justification (Splitter, 2009). Just as authenticity is an “unrepudiable” value in modern Western culture (Taylor, 1991), the development of authenticity in and through education signals an ideal that is largely uncontroversial. Bonnett and Cuypers even describe it as a meta-aim of education through which other aims can be understood:

It [authenticity] is not perhaps best thought of straightforwardly as an educational aim or objective—in the way that, say, numeracy may be—because while it is something to be achieved . . . it is nonetheless a fundamental consideration that sets the contours of much that could truly count as educational activity.

(Bonnett & Cuypers, 2003, p. 340)

Regarding student authenticity as an aim of education involves ethical and conceptual considerations. Here I will focus on the relationship between authenticity and autonomy, and the paradox of moral education.

Authenticity and Autonomy

While student authenticity is often recognized as a desired outcome of education, it stands in a contested relationship to the liberal educational ideal of autonomy. Both authenticity and autonomy pertain to the integrity and value of the self, but provoke challenging questions about the origins, borders, and capacities of such an entity.

In 1972, Dearden described autonomy as a “new aim” of education, in line with the value of freedom of thought and self-determination that are characteristic of liberal democracy. In the writing of other mid-20th-century analytic philosophers such as Peters and Scheffler, autonomy involves “making rationally informed choices” and thus depends on a particular kind of education for its fruition (Bonnett & Cuypers, 2003, p. 327). The development of autonomy in students has remained the overarching ideal in liberal educational theory, distinguishing education from indoctrination, and democracy from tyranny (Callan, 1988; Levinson, 1999; Gutmann, 1987).

As a species of freedom, autonomy has connections to most conceptions of authenticity. The existentialist view of authenticity involves confronting and willing the human condition of radical freedom; autonomy is not so much a virtue or thing to be pursued as a situation to be reckoned with (Sartre, 1984). On the Romantic or essentialist version of authenticity, autonomy is deemphasized in favor of nonvoluntary personal traits. Yet contemporary accounts of personal identity frequently present autonomy as the key to revealing a “deep self,” and hence as a version of the essentialist view of authenticity (Bialystok, 2014). The presumption is that a fully autonomous person—one who is free of all undue influence—will be most truly herself.

Philosophers of education differ on the relationship between autonomy and authenticity and, consequently, the ethics of promoting either or both as educational aims. Bonnett (1978) and Bonnett and Cuypers (2003) argue that authenticity is more holistic, incorporating not only the liberal rationalist element of autonomy but also communitarian notions of identity, hence “autonomy asymmetrically depends on authenticity” (Bonnett & Cuypers, 2003, p. 336). Peters views authenticity as one of the “basic conditions” of autonomy (1973, p. 90). Dearden, meanwhile, holds that “personal autonomy is not just part of morality, or solely a condition of moral ‘authenticity.’ It is a much more pervasive personal ideal” (1972, p. 343).

The case for endorsing either or both of these ideals as educational aims fluctuates depending on one’s political or moral frameworks. At their most distinct, autonomy channels Enlightenment-style rationalism and voluntarism, whereas authenticity demotes the role of both rationality and free choice in the development of identity. These conceptions of the self correspond to broader worldviews: “Whereas autonomy has been taken to connote procedural liberalism, equal rights based on common citizenship, and the ‘difference-blind’ state, authenticity recommends differentiated citizenship, cultural rights, and the multiculturalist state” (Levey, 2015, p. 1). Hence autonomy continues to be advocated as an educational aim by most mainstream liberal theorists, while authenticity may be a more popular ideal among those who are steeped in identity work and the “politics of difference.”

Despite the contested borders of the concepts, autonomy and authenticity may never be promoted in complete isolation from each other, synthesizing as they do many strands of modern Western thought and culture. Their persistent allure as educational aims, and the tensions between them, speak to the pivotal role of education in character development and identity formation.

Teaching for Authenticity: The Paradox

If the cultivation of students’ authenticity is to be pursued as an educational aim, it must be possible in principle for education to bring about authenticity. But here we encounter a problem. There is an inherent tension between the condition of authenticity and the means by which most education of children takes place. Haji and Cuypers capture the paradox as follows:

if education, as it appears, entails deliberate molding of the child—it requires, for example, intentional instilment of certain motivational elements in the child—but such intentional molding in the absence of the agent’s consent is generally incompatible with authenticity, how is an authentic education even possible (2008, p. 64)?

This puzzle is a version of what Peters called “the paradox of moral education,” which he initially illustrated by considering autonomy as an educational aim: “Even in a society where children are encouraged to develop as autonomous beings it is not till about the age of seven or eight that the notion begins to dawn, that rules are not transcendentally given” (Peters, 1966, p. 314). In other words, autonomy must be subverted, at least initially, for any education to occur. Championing autonomy as an educational outcome requires a certain amount of contradiction.

The paradox is at least as troubling for authenticity as it is for autonomy. Authenticity, especially on the essentialist version favored by most educators, assumes that each person has a “true self” that can be betrayed through manipulative influences or pressure to conform. Organized schooling, however, takes as its starting point the mandate to influence children in particular directions and produce some degree of conformity and standardization across individuals. In fact, if it were assumed that students already had well-formed individual identities, much of institutional education would constitute direct coercion and forced inauthenticity.

While various solutions to the paradox of moral education have been proposed in the case of autonomy (e.g., Gutmann, 1980), Haji and Cuypers (2008) are among the only philosophers to attempt a justification for authenticity as an educational aim. They argue for a relational view of authenticity, according to which “motivational elements, such as desires, that are part of a person’s evaluative scheme are not authentic in their own right” but “only relative to whether later behaviour that issues from these springs is behaviour for which its agent is responsible.” (Haji & Cuypers, 2008, pp. 3–4). Education can promote authenticity in students, therefore, by “implanting” the kinds of motivational elements that later produce behavior for which students are morally responsible, since the links between the implanted motives and the later choices are properly their own.

As their concern is to produce normative agents without employing moral indoctrination, Haji and Cuypers’ account of educational authenticity is narrower than some. Defenders of authenticity as a more general educational aim tend to bypass the paradox of moral education and take for granted that it is possible to foster individual authenticity through educational interventions. The paradox of education for authenticity has received comparatively little attention in the scholarly literature and is an area that is ripe for further research.

Conclusion: Philosophical Directions in Educational Authenticity

The volume and breadth of scholarship concerning authenticity in education is a testament to its enduring force as a Western ideal. Our interest in truth and truthfulness introduce authenticity into discussions of teacher identity, educational ethics, and classroom practices, among other areas. Despite the deep tensions among different conceptions of authenticity and their cognates, and in spite of a postmodern unease with traditional notions of truth, authenticity in some form remains hard to renounce.

The movement for authentic learning is now international in scope, and studies of teacher authenticity are also being generated in non-Western countries. Nonetheless, the cultural narrowness of authenticity as an ideal ought to be a consideration in research and policy. Because of its close connection to individualism and autonomy, authenticity may not resonate with the values of more collectivist cultures, and the demands of teachers to be authentic may not automatically serve their non-White students (Lin, 2006). Members of marginalized or minority groups often invoke “authenticity” to register their identity claims in language that aligns with Western values, while moving away from the individualist origins of the idea (Levey, 2015). Research on authenticity in education could be profitably brought into closer dialogue with neighboring scholarship on identity politics, moral education, and Eurocentrism in education.

Philosophers can contribute to ongoing discussions of the meaning and importance of authenticity in education. As the demand for authenticity appears in ever more facets of education—from e-learning and digital literacy to leadership (Duignan, 2014) and educational reform (Johnson & Salz, 2008)—its philosophical underpinnings could be linked more directly with the ample philosophical research on relevant topics in epistemology, ontology, personal identity, and ethics. Technology and globalization will only complicate questions of authenticity as educational practices continue to evolve in the 21st century.


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